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Cover Stories Series 2011> A Rewarding State Visit> Opinions
UPDATED: January 27, 2011 NO. 5 FEBRUARY 3, 2011
Reinforcing a Relationship
Though diplomatic obstacles remain, Hu's U.S. visit produces positive results

ADDRESSING BILATERAL TIES: Chinese President Hu Jintao delivers a speech at a luncheon hosted by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on January 19 (XIE HUANCHI)

Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States was an important milestone in the U.S.-China relationship. It underscored the importance of high-level engagement and a commitment to a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship. The summit provided an opportunity to celebrate the achievements that have been made, including a thriving trade relationship and cooperation on a number of global issues, like energy security, maritime piracy and nuclear proliferation.

Hu's visit should contribute to the construction of bridges between the two countries, while promoting both prosperity and stability. The visit came at the right time and Hu said the right things. The visit is all the more important, however, in light of the deep differences and mutual mistrust that remain embedded in the relationship.

While the recent summit was important, it would be incorrect to think the meetings have somehow changed the nature of the relationship or resolved underlying differences between the United States and China. Following U.S. President Barack Obama's successful November 2009 meeting with Hu in Beijing, the relationship quickly deteriorated and remained in the doldrums for much of 2010. Tensions materialized because the United States was disappointed China did not do more to address international issues, such as climate change and issues of nuclear proliferation, while China was disappointed with certain U.S. policies, including approving the sale of a weapons package to Taiwan.

Obama said Hu's visit created a foundation for the U.S.-China relationship for the next 30 years, but it is important to recognize that little at the summit was actually accomplished, other than agreements to continue attempting to narrow differences. To achieve long-term success, both sides must balance the common interests with the diverging ones.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' visit to Beijing—just prior to Hu's trip to Washington—revealed some of the limits of the bilateral relationship. There is broad recognition that the two nations share a common interest in deepening exchanges and avoiding miscalculations and misconceptions, but the test flight of a new Chinese fighter plane during Gates' visit sent mixed signals about China's intentions.

A joint statement asserted that a "healthy, stable and reliable" military-to-military relationship is a welcome and essential part of the bilateral relationship. Consistent with that shared desire, Gates extended invitations to senior People's Liberation Army officers to visit the United States and proposed sustained, high-level dialogues in order to increase mutual trust. It is important to the overall relationship that military relations are not held hostage by individual issues or crises and contribute to increased trust.

Ultimately, strengthening the bilateral relationship will require greater effort by both sides. For the United States to comfortably accept China's growing international presence, it needs to put greater effort into understanding and addressing the foreign policy consequences of China's rise. China's accumulating power, both regionally and globally, is due not only to its rapid economic growth and expanding commercial influence but also to its vigorous military modernization.

To manage this evolving relationship effectively, functioning bilateral mechanisms must be built and strengthened. On the economic side, there are existing, effective institutional mechanisms, principally the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. Chinese and American companies and officials responsible for economic relations have well-established relationships and enjoy constant contact. Without a robust strategic and military dialogue, however, the security side of the relationship will lag far behind and will become a greater liability over time.

Additionally, the United States should do more to change Chinese perceptions that the United States is a threat or that it somehow seeks to contain China. Nothing could be further from the truth. The depth and degree of economic integration between the two countries, and the emphasis on U.S. programs seeking to increase the number of American students studying in China certainly point to the U.S. intent to engage China. As a former American student in China, I appreciate the value of people-to-people contacts as an important means to increase mutual understanding. Engagement belies the belief that the United States is seeking to contain China or somehow prevent its rise.

Obama said, "I absolutely believe that China's peaceful rise is good for the world and it's good for America." Some Chinese security thinkers may see the American presence in the Pacific and Central Asia as a threat, or part of a strategy to weaken China, rather than providing the peaceful international environment that China itself seeks for its own development, though hopefully the overwhelmingly positive media coverage of the summit will shape opinions in both countries. Reassuringly, both nations desire the same outcomes: a stable international environment and a stable U.S.-China relationship. Hu's visit to Washington was a helpful reminder of those shared intentions.

The author is the director of China studies and Starr Senior Fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.

(Viewpoints in this article do not necessarily represent those of Beijing Review)

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