US-China Relations

Over the past few months, U.S.-China relations have unfolded as a three act play. In each act, seemingly predictable and highly scripted plot lines have been interrupted by dramatic twists. Each act focused on a different aspect of the wide-ranging and often contentious political, economic and military relations between the world’s two foremost powers.

On the political front, Vice President Xi Jinping used his recent visit to the United States to introduce himself to Americans and even to a Chinese audience ahead of his presumed elevation to China’s top leadership spot. Economic relations served as the main focus of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing while military relations topped the agenda of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s recent U.S. visit.

The far-reaching scope and intensity of these exchanges, following upon reciprocal visits by Chinese President Hu Jintao and American President Barack Obama in 2011, underscore the critical importance that the leaderships of these two global giants place upon managing bilateral relations. Yet the obligatory pledges of enhanced cooperation that typically accompany these high-level dialogues belie the lack of strategic trust that continues to plague relations between the United States and China.

Indeed, even as both countries recognize critical overlapping interests and fear the destructive consequences of outright conflict, officials on both sides of the Pacific seek to shore up positions of political, economic and military strength as hedges against a turn toward deepening rivalry for dominance in Asia. To further complicate matters, efforts to balance the cooperative and competitive aspects of bilateral relations are repeatedly tested by reoccurring frictions and even crises that require deft management in order to avoid escalating conflict.

Xi Jinping’s five-day visit to the U.S. beginning on February 13 included stops in Washington D.C., Iowa and Los Angeles. Each stage offered him the opportunity to present a different persona. In Washington, Xi offered himself to Americans as a skilled and knowledgeable interlocutor and while assuring Chinese that he was capable of representing China’s interests in its most important bilateral relationship. The Obama Administration recognized the political importance of getting the atmospherics right: although not yet the occupant of China’s top political position, Xi was accorded all of the pomp of a state visit, including a 19 gun salute.

Xi’s brief stop in Iowa, a Midwestern farm state, retraced the steps of his 1985 visit as a young provincial official to the small town of Muscatine, Iowa. While Xi struck a major deal for the purchase of Iowa-grown soybeans, this portion of Xi’s U.S. trip most importantly allowed him to display a common touch by mingling with Iowa farmers – even jumping on a tractor at one point – and quoting Mark Twain.

His final stop in Los Angeles allowed Xi to bask in the glamour of Hollywood and hobnob with movers and shakers in America’s entertainment industry. Expressing a fondness for movies such as the Godfather and Mission Impossible, Xi used the occasion to announce expanded access by American film distributors to the Chinese theater market.

In contrast with many of China’s often stiff and remote political leaders, Xi succeeded in projecting the image of an open, modern politician with deft communication skills and a human touch.

Yet even as this first act was concluding to much applause, an unexpected plot twist was unfolding back in China. The police chief of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in Western China, fled to the nearby city of Chengdu on February 6 after a falling-out with Chongqing’s powerful mayor, Bo Xilai. Wang Lijun took temporary refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu where he offered U.S. diplomats a strange tale of corruption and infighting among China’s elites.

While Wang was arrested following his departure from the U.S. Consulate, his accusations of wrongdoing also brought down his former boss, Bo Xilai, who was previously considered a top contender for the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, to be reshuffled at the 18th Party Congress next fall.

This puzzling incident served to undercut the image of Chinese stability and unity that Xi sought to project during his U.S. visit and once more illustrated the unpredictable nature of U.S.-China relations as U.S. diplomats found themselves enmeshed – not for the first or last time –  in purely domestic Chinese affairs.

The latter point was driven home even more forcefully in the days preceding the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing on May 3-4. This was the fourth in a series of such meetings first begun in 2009. Along with high-level officials, the Economic and Security Dialogues bring together lower-level diplomats and experts from various agencies in an effort to exchange views and explore cooperation across a broad range of issues. This year’s summit produced important agreements on trade, investment and currency rates, mostly aimed at a more open and balanced U.S.-China economic relationship. Whether the oft-contentious U.S.-China economic relationship will take a turn toward greater comity and cooperation remains in doubt, however, as both sides have in the past made similar pledges that they subsequently failed to implement.

Once again, however, the chances for a successful outcome were cast into doubt by wholly unexpected developments before the gathering even began. On April 22, a blind human rights activist and self-taught lawyer named Chen Guangcheng escaped from informal house arrest imposed by local officials in Dongshigu Village in Shandong Province. Chen had first been jailed in 2006 following his efforts to publicize coerced abortions and sterilizations in his home region. Following his release from prison in 2010, he and his family effectively remained prisoners in their own home. Following his escape, Chen made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with the help of supporters.

This produced a frantic and confusing series of negotiations involving Chen, U.S. officials and Chinese officials conducted under pressure to resolve the case prior to the beginning of the upcoming summit. After one week of talk, Chen left the U.S. Embassy for a local hospital in order to receive treatment for a foot injury sustained during his dramatic escape. While Chen initially expressed a desire to remain in China under conditions allowing him to live freely and attend school, he later requested to travel to the United States to study law at New York University. Eager to rid themselves of a high-profile dissident, Chinese officials granted permission for Chen to leave China for the United States, which he did on May 19.

This affair placed the spotlight on China’s poor human rights record  and its still weak rule of law. Often critical of China’s performance on precisely these grounds and yet concerned not to allow such issues to interfere with more weighty security and economic interests, the U.S. struggled in this case – as in many previous instances – to balance principles and pragmatism. While officials on both sides displayed patience, skill and flexibility in bringing the Chen Guangcheng case to a resolution without jeopardizing the Strategic and Economic Dialogue or broader relations, the fundamental differences between the two country’s political systems and governing philosophies remain an obstacle to closer relations that cannot be avoided.

In the third act of recent U.S.-China exchanges, Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie arrived in the United States on May 6 for a six-day tour of major U.S. defense facilities, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. General Liang’s visit was I virtually ignored bythe U.S. press, with not even a mention in the New York Times. China’s press, on the other hand, gave extensive coverage to the first visit by China’s highest military official to the United States in nine years.

Liang’s visit may, in fact, prove the most significant of the three recent exchanges.  Military-to-military ties remain the least developed dimension of U.S-China relations. While some  degree of rivalry and mistrust is to be expected as China’s rising power impinges upon America’s existing dominance,recent events have heightened tensions to a fever pitch.

Chinese defense spending continues to rise at a double digit pace even as tightening fiscal realities presage a stagnant and perhaps even declining U.S military budget. While the U.S. currently retains a commanding military advantage over China, the gap is closing quickly. China has recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier, a new stealth bomber and an anti-ship ballistic missile that could threaten America’s most formidable warships. China’s capacities in cyber-warfare and space are significant and growing.

China’s challenge to American naval and air dominance in East and Southeast Asia has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. President Obama announced a strategic “pivot” to Asia during his recent visit to the region. This was accompanied by the deployment of a 2,500 Marine contingent to Australia and the upgrading of U.S. military ties with several nations in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. has repeatedly urged closer, more consistent and transparent relations between the U.S. military and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Washington believes that China’s published military budget understates actual spending. In the absence of greater certainty about China’s weapons development plans, force deployments and strategic intentions, U.S. officials argue, then the U.S. and its allies are left to base their own planning on worst-case assumptions – thus leading to an uncontrolled arms race.

While China’s PLA has generally shown limited enthusiasm for this sort of information-sharing, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s visit resulted in an agreement for the two navies to hold joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden. Also, the Chinese invited U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to visit China at an unspecified date next fall.

Still, as with other exchanges, underlying tensions and unexpected frictions  cast future progress in developing closer military ties into serious doubt. In the past, military contacts have been among the first casualties when political tensions have deteriorated between Washington and Beijing. The potential for this pattern to repeat itself appears to have risen with recent hints that President Obama may be reconsidering the sale of advance F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan. Continued U.S. arms sales to an island that China considers a renegade province serve as perhaps the most sensitive point in U.S.-China relations. This is especially the case when such sales involve new or more advanced weapons systems that outclass China’s own capacities. A U.S. decision to go ahead with the F-16 sale to Taiwan would almost certainly bring all military cooperation between the U.S. and China to a screeching halt.

As with  the cases previously discussed, unscripted events provided a tense backdrop for General Liang Guanglie’s visit. In this case, the attempt by Philippine naval ships to expel Chinese fishing boats from an area of the South China Sea claimed by both countries led to an on-site standoff and tough language from Chinese and Philippine officials.

While the U.S. is not directly involved in the present dispute, which is ongoing as of this writing, it is party to a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines which could become activated should this or future conflicts escalate into a major naval clash. China has become more assertive in recent years about its expansive claims in the South China Sea, which holds valuable fishing resources and oil deposits. Five other countries also make overlapping claims to portions of these waters. While the U.S. takes no position on the merits of any of these claims, it has pledged to defend the principal of freedom of navigation through the area, which encompasses the most heavily used shipping lanes in the world.

The breadth and intensity of recent U.S. and Chinese political, diplomatic and military exchanges serve to underline the huge stakes attached to relations between the world’s reigning, but somewhat beleaguered, hegemon and the world’s most populous and fastest growing power. Given the range of significant differences between the U.S. and China, the continued commitment to dialogue and the modest progress achieved on concrete problems both offer grounds for hope that relations can be managed wisely and peacefully. Yet unexpected plot twists continue to test the crisis-management skills of diplomats and political leaders on both sides while adding to the suspense as the world wonders – how will this story end?

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