It is not even one month into 2011 and relations between the United States and China are picking up in intensity. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a long-awaited trip to China to restart stalled military to military dialogue. That ice-breaking visit was followed by a state visit to the U.S. by Chinese President Hu Jintao, his swan song as he prepared to step down from office and hand over the reins of power to the so-called fifth generation of leadership in China.

While the U.S.-China relationship is crucial in its own right, it is important to see the Hu visit through the lens of China’s domestic politics. As in Japan, China’s leadership must successfully manage relations with Washington. It is a sometimes difficult balancing act: Beijing must be seen as protecting national prerogatives, without being so assertive as to risk a push back from its host. By all accounts, this trip went off without a hitch.

That is a marked contrast to Mr. Hu’s last U.S. visit, in 2006, which was marred by glitches. Then, his host, then President George W. Bush, who disliked the pomp and circumstance of his office, did not offer a state dinner, preferring instead a working lunch. The welcome ceremony was interrupted by a protester from Falun Gong and the wrong national anthem was announced.

This time, Mr. Hu got the red carpet treatment. He was greeted by Vice President Joe Biden on arrival, got a 21-gun salute, had a resplendent state dinner in addition to a private dinner with President Barack Obama, and then met with political and business leaders in Washington and Chicago. More significant, Presidents Hu and Obama continued to consolidate their two countries’ “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.” Their joint communique committed them to work together in the pursuit of common interests in the spirit of mutual trust and respect. They concluded more than 10 agreements, memoranda of understanding and letters of intent in fields ranging from trade, investment, technology, people-to-people and cultural exchanges, energy, environment, high-speed rail, and smart grids.

Much of this sounds like summit boilerplate. And it is. But the U.S. and China need to forge a productive working relationship and there is no guarantee that they will. Events of the past year have raised questions about the fundamental nature of that relationship. Washington and Beijing had diplomatic clashes over the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, and the U.S. stood with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The two governments do not see eye to eye on the proper way to deal with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and they have faced off over issues ranging from economic policy to human rights.

While China’s foreign policy process remains opaque, most observers fault Beijing for tensions in the relationship and believe that Beijing’s new muscularity reflects a judgment that the regional balance of power is shifting to its advantage and that China is in better position to push its agenda. Cognizant of that assessment, Mr. Hu stressed during his U.S. visit that his country remains committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes, that it has a “defensive” military posture and that China would “‘not engage in arms race or pose a military threat to any country.” For his part, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. welcomed a powerful, prosperous and successful China with a bigger role in international affairs.

Both men’s assurances are welcome, but they will be greeted with skepticism. The real test is the ability of the two nations to forge solutions to pressing regional and international problems. In truth, the two countries have different interests and priorities and substantive agreement — rather then pledges not to make things worse — will be difficult.

In one sense, there is no alternative to a positive relationship. There is no mistaking the impact that China has on global affairs by virtue of its size and the reach of its interests. China is a global player — regardless of whether it is a global power — and its policies have an impact around the world. The U.S. and China have to work together to overcome 21st century challenges. Japan should not be threatened by a positive U.S.-China relationship — just as Washington should not be concerned as Tokyo and Beijing forge their own partnership. These are not zero-sum relationships.

There is an alternative to the “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship” that officials from both the U.S. and China like to tout — it is a hostile and suspicious one that would again draw sharp lines across the globe. Even though neither side seeks that relationship, it remains a possibility. The people to people exchanges that Presidents Obama and Hu applauded and extended during their summit are one of the best insurance policies against that kind of future. Such exchanges will help undermine the doubts and suspicions that corrode relations. Ultimately, however, success depends on results. Both nations must help the other achieve internationally acceptable goals and objectives. We are a long way from that end, successful summit notwithstanding.

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