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.

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.

A visit by China’s president is a different matter. Hu Jintao arrives in Washington tomorrow, and his every move will be the object of intense scrutiny.

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.

A spiral of mistrust

That is perhaps the biggest concern surrounding the upcoming visit. The US-China relationship is replete with unhealthy tendencies that neither public opinion nor routine bureaucratic administration seems able to address. If the two presidents can’t at least begin to unwind the self-perpetuating spiral leading toward ever-deeper mutual strategic mistrust, bigger trouble awaits.

They could start this week by:

• Pledging themselves to a focused effort aimed at slowing that spiral of mistrust and then, over time, rebuilding the foundations of mutual confidence. There is no time to lose on this front, whether in the national security sector or the economic arena. A good first step might be a common commitment to facing down the dangers of cyberwar, whose very mystery increasingly lends an element of paranoia to popular views of the two countries’ future relations.

• Boldly reaffirming Sino-American recognition of the two countries’ distinctive responsibilities in the struggle to preserve life on earth through the closest possible cooperation on energy and climate change issues. No two countries matter more than the US and China in this regard, but the two are divided by profoundly different perspectives.

• Getting behind a major expansion of people-to-people engagements between Chinese and Americans, a realm whose importance is far greater than generally recognized in high policy circles. Expanded journalism and media activities, cultural exchanges in the fine arts, music, literature and especially education, should be a high priority. Mr. Obama has made a helpful start on this with his “100,000 Strong” initiative aimed at sending more Americans to China for study, but there is much more to do.

• Forcefully reminding the American and Chinese people of the widespread benefits to each economy that trade and engagement has brought. They should also define some solid commitments to “rebalancing” both economies in ways that will ultimately bring greater stability to this all-important bilateral economic relationship. American observers hoping for Hu to announce a fixed-percentage change in the value of China’s currency against the dollar will be disappointed, but a strong commitment to put the US-China economic juggernaut on more-stable footing will do more for American (and Chinese) jobs than any spike in the yuan.

Hard work ahead

None of this will come easily, or endure effortlessly once Hu leaves for home. Unmet pledges are likely to cause more damage than no pledges at all; given US political gridlock, in particular, it remains to be seen what commitments the White House will be able to agree to. (China is way ahead of the US on government action to combat global warming, for example.) On the Chinese side, a president now in the final years of a decade-long tenure, his country nearing a change of leadership and a new economic Five Year Plan may be more interested in avoiding surprises than in energetically reversing toxic tendencies in US-China relations.

Hu’s visit to Washington in 2006 had its rough spots: There was arm-wrestling over how many guns would salute, and over whether there would be a full-dress state dinner or something less formal; a White House announcer proclaimed the playing of the anthem of China’s nemesis, the Republic of China on Taiwan, instead of that of Hu’s People’s Republic of China. Not for nothing do diligent advance teams try to cover all bases before the boss arrives.

But the US and China need more, now, than perfect execution of a ceremonial visit. It’s a tall order, but the American and Chinese presidents can do better. Certainly, the rest of the world hopes they can.

Robert Kapp, former president of the US-China Business Council, heads Robert A. Kapp & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm. He taught Chinese history at Rice University and the University of Washington.

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