Can China’s Relationship With The U.S. Take the Next Step?

Businessmen and diplomats certainly hope so. Expectations for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s trip to the United States are running high on both sides of the ocean. President Barack Obama is rolling out the red carpet, complete with the full pomp of a 21-gun salute and a black-tie dinner after Oval Office talks on Wednesday.

People’s Daily summed up the hopeful mood here in China:

“In the chilly days of January,” the paper said, “President Hu is setting out for the United States with high expectations. People have good reason to believe his trip will bring China-U.S. relations onto a new track that will benefit both countries and the whole world.”

But, what are the realistic chances for China and the United States to develop the levels of mutual respect and trust necessary to advance the Sino-U.S. relationship beyond general statements of partnership and photo opportunities? Can these two superpowers really develop their relationship to the point where they can begin to have a real dialogue as to how to address the globe’s thorniest issues together?

The experience to date is not encouraging. After all, the two countries have diametrically opposed positions on virtually every major issue facing them: China’s currency, Iran, North Korea, human rights, Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, you name it.

Beyond the issues themselves, however, the leaders of the two countries do not seem to have reached a common understanding of the relative positions and intentions of each other in the new world order. Many in China remain suspicious of U.S. intentions and believe that the U.S. is trying to contain their country. At the same time, many in the West do not appreciate the fact that the world order has indeed changed, and that China needs to be treated as more of an equal if the relationship is going to have any chance of getting off to a new start.

For example, Jon Huntsman, Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China, gave a speech last year to students at Tsinghua University about the Sino-U.S, relationship. As a member of the Republican Party, which is generally considered favorable to business and China, and a Mandarin speaker, Ambassador Huntsman is well qualified to speak on the subject.

At least one take on Ambassador Huntsman’s speech, though, was quite negative. In an article entitled, “A tiresome affair of U.S. demands,” the author, a guest professor of journalism with Tsinghua University and Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote:

“Define the relationship,” may have been the promising words to start Jon Huntsman’s speech last Thursday to several hundred Tsinghua University students, but the United States ambassador to China came up far short of a clear definition of the China-U.S. relationship.

Although he later compared the relationship to that of a romantic couple in response to a student’s question, Huntsman’s speech did more to show that relations between the two countries are lopsided: The U.S. is keen on issuing demands and wants China to follow them.

Huntsman’s speech is rife with demands. They are the same demands that we’ve seen recently from the U.S.: China must immediately join the U.S. and other Western countries and agree to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear enrichment program; China must shoulder the blame of the global financial crisis and revalue its currency; China must cooperate with the U.S. on global climate change; China must stop its support for regimes that the U.S. dislikes; China must not convict any citizen if the U.S. government defines these individual Chinese as political dissidents. China should also not allow disputes over the U.S.’s recent arms sale to Taiwan and the American president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama to obstruct their future cooperation.

This kind of relationship is indeed romantic, but it’s only a one-sided courtship of the White House and the U.S. State Department. As a Chinese, I can’t see the faintest sign of dignity or benefit for China in this relationship.

The relationship is a perfect fit for the desires of the US, but is it a relationship the Chinese people are willing to have? Absolutely not.

Indeed, the headlines and stories in U.S. publications ahead of the visit seem to be validating the professor’s point. In an article this morning, Lawmakers: U.S. should crack down on China, CNN reported that two members of Congress have circulated a letter amongst colleagues that accuses China of consistent violations of international trade law, and warns the behavior will no longer be tolerated. The Congressmen see President Hu’s visit as a golden opportunity for President Obama to press China on trade issues.

Earlier last week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that China needed to do more to address the trade gap and U.S. complaints about an undervalued Chinese currency. And last Friday, in a wide-ranging and unusually frank speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to free dissidents and improve treatment of minorities, pledging not to shy away from disagreements during the visit.

This may or may not be the right approach for the U.S. to take with respect to China at this time. Whether it is or it isn’t, however, the reaction in China is predictable. Issuing such demands will be seen to indicate a lack of mutual respect, without which it is impossible to develop the mutual trust that everyone wants to see develop between the two countries. Unless a breakthrough is made on this front, the prospects that the relationship between the two countries will move to a new level as a result of this trip are not good.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!