Dynamics between a rising China and the US are often described as the most important in the global long-term.
Yet for months, a decided distance and chill have fallen over the two sides - with both more freely questioning the economic policies, Asian regional approach, and international initiatives of the other.
This week, the European Union and Washington are on the verge of a textile trade war with China. Pressured by Congress, Treasury Secretary John Snow recently insisted that Beijing float its dollar-pegged currency, the yuan, which has not changed in a decade. Secretary Snow, who last week softened his stance, essentially described Beijing as a currency manipulator, regarded here as tough words.
But beyond a $150 billion-plus trade deficit, a growing list of gripes about China is starting to displace what had been four years of proud White House talk of ties across the Pacific as "candid, cooperative, constructive," sources say.
Those gripes include frustration over perceived Chinese sluggishness in blocking North Korea's nuclear program, and China's expanding friendliness with regimes deemed trouble by the US: Burma, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Iran. The Pentagon, which is about to release a report describing China's military strategy as "unknown," is grumbling more loudly about Chinese military spending.
New tensions exist over emerging spheres of influence in Asia, Beijing's recent rough handling of US ally Tokyo, and questions about a Chinese role in the pointed exclusion of the US at a Malaysian regional summit later this year on East Asian integration, popularly called "Asia for Asians." Human rights and Taiwan are perennial concerns.
Only last November, then- Secretary of State Colin Powell called relations with China the "best ever." A year before, with Beijing taking the lead on six-party diplomacy with Kim Jong Il of North Korea, President Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met in the Oval Office, and Mr. Bush even criticized Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, who is seen in Beijing as an enemy. Yet that moment has not returned.
"What's notable is what isn't being said in Washington today," says Asia specialist Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum/CSIS in Honolulu. "You don't hear that US-China relations are the best ever. What you hear is complaining about North Korea - that China thinks strong action is premature, even though the North has now threatened to test a bomb."
At a press conference Tuesday, President Bush said that the United States would continue to insist on fair trade as the Chinese economy expands. He called China a good partner in dealing with North Korea and terrorism, while stressing the need for religious and press freedoms in a country that enjoys such economic freedom.
Impact of France's 'no' vote
The French "no" vote on the European Constitution this week could begin to shift Beijing's alignment back toward the US, one European diplomat in Beijing suggests.
As the government of President Hu Jintao has solidified, China has pursued a foreign policy designed to support a "multipolar" world where Beijing would side with Europe as an emerging power bloc to balance out US influence in the world. It was a vision supported as well by French President Jacques Chirac. Mr. Hu has been viewed as less pro-American than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Yet the French vote appears to thwart a unified Europe wedded to Mr. Chirac's vision - and appears to set back plans in Beijing of a power bloc.
"The referendum is a setback for Beijing," says the diplomat, "and it could shift the pendulum in US-China relations. Hu is going to the US this year, and we may see ties warm up."
Yet some of the dissonance between Washington and Beijing will take more than smiles to resolve, sources point out.
China's befriending of so many states that the US sees as potentially hostile, including North Korea and Burma, is causing concern. Last week, days after a bloody put-down of protesters in Uzbekistan, Beijing welcomed Uzbek president Islam Karimov to Beijing, and signed a $600 million oil agreement with him.
Nepal's King Gyanendra, who was being isolated by India and other Asian states for essentially disbanding the elements of democracy in his country, had been unable to travel diplomatically anywhere - until Beijing welcomed him earlier this year.
China's backing of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and its building of a palace in the style of Beijing's Forbidden City, is also viewed in Washington as support for Mr. Mugabe's often antidemocratic outlook.
Defenders of China's position here note that Beijing is simply looking after its interests in regional relations, and the energy deals it needs with regimes from Iran to Venezuela.
"I understand it is a question of Chinese interests," says one US military expert in Washington. "But they [the Chinese] have to see that they are lining up with every one of our problem governments. So this is being noticed and discussed [in Washington.]"