President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States from January 18 to 21 at the invitation of US President Barack Obama took place in the context of important historic guides about the development of Sino-US relationships. These can be found in Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the US in 1979 which set the stage for strengthening Sino-American relations and former president Jiang Zemin’s groundbreaking state visit in 1997 which prepared the framework and guidelines for bilateral ties for the 21st century.President Hu’s visit at this critical juncture of the transformation of the international system and China-US relations will set the tone for future dealings between the two sides. In this sense, Hu’s visit undoubtedly will be judged to be historic.
The dramatic fluctuations in China-US ties since Obama took office indicate the relationship stands at a historical crossroads. The changing relative strengths of the two countries, variations in the US’s political ecology and shifts in the international system and regional framework have given bilateral ties a greater importance.
If comprehensive and profound strategic competition and the rising risks of strategic contests between the two sides are not effectively managed in a timely manner, they may cause bilateral ties to seriously deviate from the right path. The outcomes could lead in the extreme to all-out confrontation, a result that is not desired on a global scale and would certainly exacerbate the continuing global financial crisis.
So it is no wonder that authorities and diplomatic communities in both countries are trying to resolve the issues in the best possible way. Obama’s visit to China in November 2009 and the Sino-US Joint Statement then issued were seen as a joint effort to stabilize bilateral ties.
Hu’s visit to the United States reflects the Chinese leadership’s will to promote comprehensive cooperation. Such reciprocal visits, together with frequent talks between the two sides at different multilateral meetings, show that they are committed to maintaining peace and stability and exploring ways to deepen strategic mutual trust.
The framework that has been guiding the relationship for more than 30 years cannot fully meet the requirements of bilateral relations in the new era. Many far-sighted US figures, including former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former US secretary of state Dr Henry Kissinger, have said that Beijing and Washington should renew their relationship framework through new political documents. So, there is reason to believe that Hu’s visit will help to hammer out an overall arrangement for the establishment of a long-term and stable strategic bilateral framework.
The disturbance in bilateral ties last year damaged the fragile mutual trust and deepened strategic suspicions between the two global powers. To forge a stable framework that truly reflects the will of both sides and bears long-term effects, Hu and Obama should keep in mind the basic realities, although the priority for both sides now is to enhance trust and erase doubts.
Some Chinese foreign experts believe the Obama administration is changing its strategy toward China to contain Beijing’s rise by employing financial, military and diplomatic means and encircling the country geographically. The reason, they say, is the US cannot accept China’s rapid rise as a regional and global power.
On the other hand, American strategists say China is becoming more “assertive”, “arrogant” and “aggressive,” because it believes “the US is declining as a power while China is rising” and “the US needs China more than China needs the US”.
China and the US, as well as the international community, hope Hu’s visit to the US will ensure that instead of turning against each other, the two sides continue to maintain a strategy of “win-win” cooperation, outline their real intentions and enhance mutual trust to get bilateral relations back on the right track.
Re-establishing and enhancing mutual trust and clearing doubts to take bilateral ties forward in the new era should be an important goal for the two leaders. The two major issues standing in the way of smoother bilateral relations are a “rebalance” in trade and “reassurance” in security. The US will continue to press China over issues concerning Beijing’s financial security and economic development such as the yuan’s exchange rate, independent innovation and protection of intellectual property rights. China, on its part, is concerned about gaining recognition as a market economy, deregulation of the US’s high-tech export policy, and other issues of mutual benefit.
Whether the two sides can achieve a breakthrough on these issues depends on Washington’s will to abide by the basic principle of not over-politicizing economic issues and elevating its approach to deal with problems in the global context..
On the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, China and the US share the same goal, that of maintaining peace and restoring stability and prosperity to the peninsula. They differ, however, on the means to achieving that goal. They cannot, for the time being, agree on the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. But to maintain stability and to bury the Cold War mentality in Northeast Asia once and for all, the US would do well to show greater tolerance and understanding.
When it comes to arms sales to Taiwan, the US is still obsessed with petty interests and ignores the overall situation.
While Hu’s visit is expected to set bilateral relations rolling in the right direction againthat does not necessarily mean the future will be smooth. With increasingly closer interests and gains and losses already made, competition and rifts between the two sides cannot be avoided. Old problems concerning US arms sales to Taiwan, the insistence of US presidents on meeting with the Dalai Lama, human rights issues and ideological differences still exist.
New problems in terms of ocean navigation , outer space and network security have been emerging. The two sides are also divided over reforms to the United Nations, the global financial system, climate change and other issues of global significance.
That’s why it is very important to continue regular high-level exchange visits, as well as maintaining contacts between the two countries’ strategic, business and military constituencies and peoples. Such arrangements are needed to deepen and expand existing cooperation mechanisms and assess the changes in bilateral relations in a rational and healthy way.
Yuan Peng is director of the American Studies Center at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing.