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Foreign Policy

What Can be Expected from Obama’s China Trip?

Oct 18 , 2014
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The United States President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend the annual APEC informal leaders’ meeting and to visit China in early November. Due to Obama’s absence from the APEC meetings in Indonesia last year and to the fact that China was not included in his four-nation Asian tour last April, his upcoming visit is attracting world attention. Both China and the US attach great importance to the visit and are making a lot of preparations. The visit to Washington late last August by Zheng Zeguang, China’s assistant foreign minister in charge of North American affairs, and the visit to Beijing early last September by Susan Rice, Adviser to the President on National Security Affairs,as well as China’s Navy Commander Wu Shengli ’s visit to the US last September and the 15th defense consultation between the defense departments of the two countries arranged for mid-October all lead people to believe that the two countries are working hard together to assess the status quo of the Sino-US relations, try to expand cooperation and control or resolve differences.

It gives the world an encouraging signal when Susan Rice said that Obama considers his visit as an important milestone in building important relations between China and the US and that despite many other problems on the agenda, Obama gives priority to US-China relations. The value of her statements was reinforced by President Obama’s meeting, on October 1, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China, who paid a visit to Washington from September 30 to October 2, 2014. It is only natural that the latest developments have made people have higher expectations for the visit. However, past experience and current existing challenges to the Sino-US relations still make it hard for people to fully believe that fine words by US leaders and senior officials would be translated into actions.

At present, expansion of cooperation faces so many opportunities that any slight reduction of strategic mistrust can help make a breakthrough in negotiations on specific cooperative projects. For instance, at the 6th Strategic and Economic Dialogue(S&ED) last July, both China and the US are committed to joint exploration of opportunities of cooperation in infrastructure, and recognized the potential value of the active role of enterprises of both countries in infrastructure. As is known to all, many of the US bridges, ports and highways were built dozens of years ago and call for consolidation or reconstruction. Chinese enterprises can work together with US partners in carrying out US infrastructure updating programs. The immediate benefits for the US would be jobs created for local workers and improvement of infrastructure.

Civilian hi-tech and hi-tech product exports to China can also benefit both countries. In order to help boost the economy and reduce trade surplus, China has decided to increase imports of hi-tech products. This would provide the US with abundant opportunities to increase exports to China, as the US has been deliberating on loosening possible export policy restrictions since Obama took office some 6 years ago so as to increase US exports. At the 6th S&ED last July, the US side reiterates that it would give China fair treatment during the export control reform, and that it would encourage and facilitate hi-tech items export to China’s civilian end users. There has been much talk about the possible exports to China, but no remarkable actions so far. It is believed that Obama himself doesn’t want to see such a situation continue till the end of his presidential tenure. Frankly speaking, the US civilian hi-tech and hi-tech product export restrictions are damaging its own interests and those of the Sino-US relations. Most of the possible US civilian hi-tech and hi-tech products exports to China would not create so-called national security problems for the US, as China can make on its own or import from other countries those hi-tech and hi-tech products. Some of the hi-tech products may have a technical edge now, and it will completely get lost in just a few years time. The US has lost many opportunities of exports to China due to the imaginary and groundless fears of so-called national security breaches.

There is a very long list of cooperation opportunities in areas such as dealing with climate change, energy consumption efficiency, environmental protection, peaceful use of nuclear energy, anti-terrorism, anti-drug-trafficking, and many other global challenges. It would bring more benefits to the world when China and the US could manage to set up more new programs of cooperation during Obama’s visit.

Another equally important issue that cannot be avoided during the visit is that China and the US should effectively manage and control differences, especially in the area of security. It is worrisome that senior military officers and diplomats of the two countries often exchange sharp words on issues such as military activities in the South and East China Seas or West Pacific. However, valuable progress may have been made recently when senior military officers of the two countries met and had closed door sessions and no new unhappy encounters of air-force planes and naval vessels of the two countries have occurred. China and the US should redouble their efforts to realize the goal of positive interactions in Asia and to make the military-to-military relations between the two countries a stabilizer for the overall Sino-US relations. Any breakthrough on the aboved two issues during the visit would certainly help enhance mutual political trust and improve the atmosphere for the whole of the Sino-US relations.

Although the Sino-US relations have, on the whole, moved forward in the last 6 years, no significant breakthrough has been made, except some progress in exchanges in the areas of culture and tourism. The so-called US strategy of rebalance in Asia has actually caused serious damages to the Sino-US relations and regional security. What the US will do with regard to the Sino-US relations and in Asia in the next two years during Obama’s presidency will define the legacy of his China or Asian policies. And the upcoming visit carries weight in this process.

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