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U.S.-China Relations: Vision Needed

U.S.-China relations have been at a low point in recent months due to tensions over American arms sales to Taiwan, President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, disputes over the value of the yuan, the Copenhagen climate conference, and the U.S. government's support of Google's (GOOG) criticism of Chinese censorship.

The good news is that ties are showing signs of improvement. During Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington on Apr. 12-13 for the nuclear security summit, he met with Obama and indicated Beijing's willingness to work with the U.S. on U.N.-sponsored sanctions against Iran. Adding to the spirit of reconciliation, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has delayed a report to Congress, which has been pressuring the Obama Administration to name China as a currency manipulator. Geithner even made a quick stop in Beijing on Apr. 8 to meet with Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, prompting reports that China may let the yuan float more flexibly with the dollar.

Before we conclude that U.S.-China ties are warming up, it is worth noting that Beijing and Washington have very different views on how to manage their relationship.

Take the telephone conversation between Obama and Hu in early April, before their meeting at the summit. Immediate reports in the U.S. media following the hourlong exchange of the two presidents praised the event as a turning point in bilateral relations, focusing on Obama's effort to convince Hu of the need for a common stand in sanctioning Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Perception Gap

Yet the Chinese news releases at the same time gave no indication of a "breakthrough." Beijing stressed Hu's demand that the U.S. "properly handle" the issues of Taiwan and Tibet, which represent China's "core interests." And there was not even a mention that the two leaders discussed Iran, other than one line saying they exchanged views on international issues of common concern.

Such discrepancies reflect a broader perception gap. On the American side, the emerging consensus is that the Obama Administration began its term committed to working closely with Beijing on a range of issues. It took extra steps in not being openly critical of China's currency policy, expanded the high-profile U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue, which under Bush was led by the Treasury Secretary, to include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Geithner. Obama also delayed a meeting with the Dalai Lama prior to his China trip and showed substantial patience with the Chinese concerns at the Copenhagen conference.

That conciliatory approach, not without domestic criticism, does not seem to be appreciated by the Chinese side. Beijing displayed angrier-than-before reactions to the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, something that has been going on for decades, and to Obama's low-key meeting with the Dalai Lama, already a deferred event that the Chinese were well aware would happen. To many in Washington, what is the point of continuing to be nice when there are no obvious benefits?

On the Chinese side, the initial accommodating approach by Obama, although met with a level of caution and skepticism, was perceived as a potential new approach to China that respects the rise of China and its more equal status with the U.S. After all, many argue, China continues to buy U.S. Treasury bonds and now shoulders the largest amount of U.S. debt, thus financing whatever the Americans are doing—from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to health care at home. China has played a vital role in getting the global economy on a speedier path to recovery, thanks to its effective stimulus package. Beijing is also expected to help with the nuclear issues of North Korea and Iran, two countries that are hostile to Washington but less of a threat to China.

Strategic Accommodation

So Beijing felt a sense of betrayal when Obama, shortly after an all-positive visit to Beijing, went on with the arms sales to Taiwan and the meeting with the Dalai Lama. Many mainstream, liberal-minded Chinese academics have complained that such moves are not part of a fresh approach to China. Rather, these are old policies that do not accommodate China's new status.

The key here is not the lack of communication channels. Both countries have interacted with each other for more than three decades. There are no language problems, little cultural barriers, and plenty of conferences, track-two mechanisms, and personal correspondence. We have seen elegant op-ed articles written on both sides articulating how one side is right and the other side wrong. The end result? They talk past each other rather than with each other.

The fundamental issue in today's U.S.-China relationship is how Washington and Beijing manage their relations with a long-term strategic vision that rewards both sides. The Americans tend to think what's good for America must be good for the world. Beijing, and for that matter much of the world, may not think so. Chinese leaders tend to think nothing matters that much unless it is good for China.

The starting point is to acknowledge that both countries have their own domestic and foreign policy priorities. Some of them may be shared, some may not, and others may be in conflict. To accommodate and bridge different interests, the U.S. and China need to engage in more than just frank discussions. Tangible strategic concessions from both sides must be made in order to promote cooperation and avoid confrontation.

Wenran Jiang is the Mactaggart Research Chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and the senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He was also a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., from September 2009 to March 2010.

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