How Hu and Obama can cleanse toxic US-China relations
If President Hu Jintao and President Obama can’t at least begin to unwind the self-perpetuating spiral leading toward ever-deeper mutual strategic mistrust, bigger trouble awaits.
Port Townsend, Wash.
Heads of foreign government flow through Washington like water, often with little public notice outside the Beltway. Photos of President Obama with President Nicolas Sarkozy or Prime Minister Angela Merkel might not make the nation’s front pages.Skip to next paragraph
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The reasons are obvious: China’s is now the world’s second-biggest economy, after our own. It now generates more atmospheric greenhouse gasses even than the US. Its military is advancing conspicuously in technical sophistication and skill, potentially bumping up against long-held US assumptions and prerogatives in the Pacific. The US and China in 2010 found themselves out of sync, or at loggerheads, on issue after issue, with China adopting a more muscular tone than Americans have been accustomed to.
Most important bilateral relationship
In fact, the US-China relationship, which the Obama administration regularly calls the most important bilateral relationship on the globe in this century, needs work. The two countries are increasingly wrapped into a security dilemma, in which each side – both at high government levels and at popular levels – sees actions taken by the other as dangerous to its own future, and reacts with countermeasures that simply deepen the other side’s suspicions about its intentions. Strident voices in each nation proclaim the heightened dangers presented by the other. This is especially true in the fragile and hypersensitive military sector, but it is mirrored in the looming tensions on the economic and commercial fronts – in spite of the huge and often mutually beneficial ties linking the American and Chinese economies.
Thirty years ago, when the US and China were just getting acquainted after their bitter cold war divorce, pundits noted that the relationship was “trip driven.” A trip by the US or Chinese president was an “action-forcing event,” capable of galvanizing sluggish bureaucracies and overcoming internal paralysis arising from interest-group conflicts.
That’s still true, but to a lesser extent. The range of US-China engagements is now so broad, the channels of official communication so numerous, and the maintenance of routine contacts so regular that no presidential visit in either direction can write a new script on an empty blackboard.
Moreover, anyone who has ever watched at close range the advance work that precedes a Chinese or US president’s state visit knows that, a week before game time, the scripts are mostly set in stone. Those staffing the visitor, particularly when the traveler is from China, are as much concerned with how their man will look to the home audience as they are with either the optics in the host country or, for that matter, the substantive content of any agreements the two leaders reach.