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Hu Jintao’s Visit: Opportunity to Reset the U.S.-China Relationship

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama meet in Seoul.By Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS

A lot of inaccurate information is being published about the Obama administration’s China policy.  U.S. officials are generally disappointed that Beijing has not embraced President Obama’s offer to elevate the U.S.-China relationship through cooperation on global issues of consequence to both countries, but they have not retracted the proposal. Washington continues to try to work with China on a broad range of issues where our interests overlap.  While there is concern about a pattern of more assertive Chinese rhetoric and behavior this past year, there has been no decision to forge an anti-China coalition in concert with China’s neighbors.

U.S. media reports about U.S. policy toward China can lead to mistaken conclusions, however.  The Washington Times reported (Oct. 21) that there is a policy dispute between two factions, the “kowtow” group that favors policies of conciliation and concessions in relations with China and another group that is “sad and disappointed” by Beijing’s refusal to work cooperatively with the United States for the past two years.  A few days later (Oct. 25) the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was “stiffening its approach toward Beijing” and seeking to shape coalitions to pressure China to change its unacceptable policies.  Then the Sankei Shimbun claimed (Nov. 14) that the main purpose of President Obama’s trip to Asia was to issue a warning to China.

It is fair to say that the U.S.-China relationship has failed to meet the hopes and expectations of the United States from the president on down.  Obama’s team worked assiduously the first year in office to put the U.S.-China relationship on solid footing, hoping to lay the groundwork for cooperation on major global challenges like coping with climate change, preventing nuclear nonproliferation, and building a new global economic order.  Beijing proved unwilling to jointly tackle these problems.  Moreover, the Chinese viewed the United States as weakened by the global financial crisis and concluded that the power gap between China and the U.S. was rapidly narrowing.

A succession of events since early 2009 suggests that Beijing has been testing the hypothesis that the relative decline in U.S. power and China’s growing strength has provided Beijing with increased leverage.  Although China denies an intention to directly challenge U.S. interests, it has shown a willingness to more assertively defend what it sees as Chinese core national interests.

Evidence of China’s growing assertiveness in areas linked to its core interests can be seen in its rhetoric and behavior in several instances:

  1. Chinese harassment of U.S. ocean surveillance ships operating in China’s exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea in the spring of 2009.
  2. Beijing’s harsh reaction to the January 2010 $6.4 billion arms sales package to Taiwan.
  3. Chinese warnings in response to planned U.S.-ROK joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan following the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan.
  4. Chinese response to U.S. efforts to promote a multilateral process to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea.
  5. Chinese actions to slow the delivery of cargo being shipped from Chinese ports to Japan, including rare earths, after the Japanese arrested and detained the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel that was fishing in waters claimed by Japan near the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.

Developments this year should convince the Chinese that it would be unwise to underestimate US determination to remain the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific region.  And while the U.S. economy will not recover in the near-term, it is likely to be resilient and remain a leading engine of global economic growth in the future.

It’s time for Beijing to recalibrate its foreign policy and get back to meeting the challenge of acting as a responsible stakeholder, an offer first put on the table by the George W. Bush administration, though pursued even earlier by the Clinton administration.  Last week in Jakarta, President Obama stated that the U.S. seeks a prosperous and secure China and noted that “we’re not interested in containing that process.”  He urged China to join the community of nations that operates within an international framework and a set of rules in which countries recognize their responsibilities.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit presents an opportunity to reset the U.S.-China relationship.  There is a pressing need to demonstrate the value of our bilateral ties to our respective elite and publics.  Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the NSC Jeff Bader told the press in a briefing prior to Obama’s departure for the region that the administration’s approach to China is based on three pillars: 1) broadening areas of cooperation with China; 2) strengthening relationships with partners and allies to shape the context in which China’s emergence is occurring; and 3) insisting that China abides by global norms and international law.  The offer to have a partnership based on cooperation on global issues is still on the table.  Beijing would be wise to seize it.

An extended version of this post appeared in the CSIS Pacific Forum PacNet newsletter on November 23.

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