Since normalization of relations in 1979, US-China relations have been characterized by a mixture of cooperation and conflict. Up until a few years ago, it was clear that “cooperation” was the hallmark, the most important part, of the relationship, including economic relations, cultural and educational relations, and, in some measure, cooperation on important foreign policy issues such as North Korea. The combination of continued strong growth in China, including growth in military forces, and the financial crisis in the US, which led to the appearance of disarray (not to say shambles) in the US Government, has resulted in a change in the tenor of US-China relations. China is moving with confidence in foreign affairs to aggressively assert“core interests” in the South and East China Sea, and in Taiwan, and makes it clear it expects the US to respect those core interests. Speaking with more than one voice, some in China also talk of Asia for Asians, with the idea that since China is ready to play a dominant role, the US should cut and run – from its alliances in Asia, presumably including its unofficial tie with Taiwan. China’s domestic media hammers the theme that the US “rebalance” towards Asia is actually containment, aimed at holding down China’s economic development.
This is risky business. President Obama has specifically confirmed that the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, even though the US has no view on sovereignty there. And the US has shown no inclination to abandon its defense treaties with countries such as the Philippine and South Korea, or to abandon its security concerns about Taiwan. On the contrary, China’s assertiveness suggests they should be beefed up (e.g. the US-Philippines security tie). No other countries in Asia (with the possible exception of North Korea) have echoed the call “Asia for Asians”; in fact, in countries such as Vietnam and Burma, relations with the US are the best in many decades. As for the idea of “containment”, it is so clearly wrong (the US remains China’s overall leading trading partner; Chinese students flock to the US by the hundreds of thousands, where they are welcomed by our universities) as to suggest that China’s leaders feel a need to point to foreign foes in order to look strong domestically.
So we are left with a supremely important bilateral relationship, perhaps moving in the wrong direction. But perhaps not. Unexpectedly, in the face of what seemed to be deterioration, the Obama-Xi meeting last November produced important results : an umbrella agreement on climate change; agreements to work to avoid air and sea collisions; and a much more liberal visa policy on both sides (at the very time when China seems to be moving to isolate itself from foreign information). What the US and China both need to do now, as the US prepares for Xi Jinping’s state visit, is again focus on the cooperative elements of the relationship. Starting with Nixon’s visit to China, continuing with Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Washington DC, and on to today, high-level meetings have played an important role in expanding bilateral relations, and, perhaps above all, in setting the tone for the relationship. Both bureaucracies should be working now to set, or re-set that tone, that positive momentum, in the runup to the visit.