Two words sum up Sino-American ties in 2007: stable and omplicated.
The word "stable" means that although disputes between the two existed last year, they kept open channels of information exchange and communicated well on important issues.
Considering stability, the relationship between China and the United States matured in 2007. But the complexity of their ties has been mounting over the past years. Some uncertain elements in their bilateral relations grew more intense last year.
Mature and stable relations
The maturity of the link between China and the United States can be proved in two aspects: First, the two countries are both getting used to combining their disputes and cooperation and learning how to coexist with conflicts. In early 2007, some unfriendly tones rose from the U.S. side, which exaggerated the trade imbalance between the two countries. Some Americans overstated intellectual property rights protection, the yuan's exchange rate, food safety issues and China's market access. They called upon trade protectionism and threatened trade sanctions at every turn.
In the meantime, the U. S. Congress prohibited China's Huawei Technologies Co. from purchasing 3Com Corp., in the name of national security. On the Taiwan question and the issue of Tibet, the U.S. Government took some wrong steps, such as selling advanced weapons to Taiwan, U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama and Congress issuing the "exiled religious leader" the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by the American legislature. These moves inevitably damaged bilateral relations.
Some U.S. celebrities and non-governmental organizations intended to force China to give in on some issues by threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games to be held in August 2008. This seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Furthermore, the U.S. media again and again overestimated threats from Chinese computer hackers. In addition, China launched an anti-satellite space test on January 9, 2007. In November the same year, China initially denied the American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk permission to dock in Hong Kong. U.S. Government, think tanks and the American press criticized China about these incidents. The Chinese side says the criticism is groundless.
All these disputes and conflicts did not block the stable development of bilateral trade and economic relations between China and the United States. It was estimated that their bilateral trade volume would exceed $300 billion in 2007, and the growth rate of U.S. exports to China would reach 35 percent of the total export volume, which would be the fastest growing part of American exports.
Military exchanges between the two countries deepened as well. China and the United States set up regular visits between high-level officials and fleets. The highlight came in October 2007 when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited China and the two sides agreed to set up a military hotline between their respective defense departments as an attempt to strengthen their mutual military trust.
China and the United States also maintained their consultations and coordination on important international and regional issues, the results of which were encouraging. They continued to work together on settling the North Korean nuclear issue through diplomacy under the framework of six-party talks, which moved the issue in a positive direction. They also cooperated on resolving the Darfur conflict, stabilizing Myanmar and helping Pakistan to combat extremists and terrorists.
Second, they established unrestricted dialogue mechanisms. Except for regular phone calls, the two presidents met during the G8 Summit meetings in June 2007 and the APEC meetings in September. There were many dialogue mechanisms between the two sides, and four of them were of special importance: the Strategic Dialogue or the Senior Dialogue, a high-level discussion mechanism for political, security and strategic issues; the Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) that stressed global, regional and bilateral, trade and economic problems; the Defense Consultative Talks, which have been held since Bill Clinton was in office; and the China-U.S. Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, which was set up in 1983.
Effective dialogue mechanisms can continue to help China and the United States realize their common interests, such as fighting terrorism and maintaining world stability and regional security, so as to maintain and upgrade the global governance. Most importantly, the above-mentioned dialogue mechanisms can help both countries conduct frank and constructive communication in order to clear up strategic misgivings, restrain problems in a controllable range, and advance the healthy development of their bilateral ties.
On September 21, 2005, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick introduced an important concept-responsible stakeholders. He stressed that since China was an important member of the international community, the United States hoped the country would take on more significant global responsibilities. In April 2006, President Hu Jintao echoed Zoellick during his U.S. visit, saying that China was not just a "stakeholder," but also a "constructive cooperator" to the United States. Obviously, the two countries found common ground on the concept of "stakeholder."
The bilateral relationship between China and the United States also is characterized by its complexity and complication, due to growing uncertainties about political, trade and economic issues.
In 2007, the United States faced six challenges: its dilemma in Iraq, nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, Russia's growing power and tougher attitude, global anti-U.S. sentiment, the impact of a stronger euro versus the U.S. dollar, setbacks to democracy with Hamas coming to power in Palestine and leftist governments running Latin American countries.
At present, China is not the top focus of U.S. foreign policy, but it remains one of the elements that Washington must consider when dealing with foreign affairs. More and more U.S. domestic interests are getting involved with China, due to the growing trade and economic ties. And Washington still needs Beijing's help in solving international problems.
Some of the American presidential candidates have even tried to play the "China card" during their campaigns, but U.S. voters are not buying it. All these show that Beijing's position is gaining more ground in Washington's global strategy.
Chinese leaders paid much more attention to domestic issues in 2007, and the country's diplomatic activities in the year were not as intensive as in 2006. But the rapid growth of China's comprehensive national strength made the country an important and influential force that can influence international situations. As a result, China's foreign policy was even more conspicuous. When Taiwan separatists' activities moved in an extreme and irrational direction last year, the Chinese Central Government had to focus its time and energy on observing its actions, preventing "Taiwan independence" and cooperating with the international community, while it continued to work with the United States to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.
In 2007, Washington concentrated mainly on trade disputes with China, China's military modernization, its activities on international issues such as global warming and the crises in Sudan and Myanmar, its development of soft power and the country's global responsibilities.
Washington's usual top three topics when dealing with China-Taiwan, human rights and nuclear proliferation-were not as important in 2007 as in previous years. But for China, the Taiwan question and trade disputes were still at the forefront, and they remained the headline topics of the two sides in 2007. Generally speaking, China was satisfied with the U.S. stance on the Taiwan question last year, and it did not have an impact on Sino-American relations. Although the two sides did not see eye-to-eye on their trade situation, their bilateral trade relationship was still developing, due to the joint efforts of both governments.
Two factors will determine the stable development of future Sino-American ties: Whether or not the United States accepts China's peaceful rise as a fact, and whether or not China accepts the existing world system under U.S. domination. The attitudes of both on the concept of "stakeholders" show that their relationship will head in a positive direction.
Because China's development is a fact, the U.S. Government has no other choice but to accept it and continue communicating with China. Washington hopes that its contact with Beijing will help integrate China into the U.S.-led international system, which was the main reason that Zoellick proposed the "stakeholder" concept. But if Washington insists that it must judge whether or not China is a "responsible stakeholder," its self-centered attitude will cause great troubles between the two nations.
Chinese elites say their country's peaceful rise is occurring under the existing international system, and there is no need to change it. China will ask for more equal international treatment and will take corresponding responsibilities. This is the connotation of Hu's statement that "China is not only a stakeholder, but also a constructive cooperator."
In 2008, three topics will test the foundation of bilateral ties between China and the United States. The Taiwan question will be a bigger challenge. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election will greatly influence the bilateral ties. And China's comprehensive national strength will greatly improve after it successfully hosts the Olympic Games in Beijing.
To keep their relations developing at a healthy pace, the two countries must cooperate and strengthen their ties to prevent Taiwan separatists from creating disturbances. China also needs to cope with periodic influences brought about by U.S. domestic politics. After the Olympic Games in 2008, China will take on an international requirement of growing responsibility to the world, because its global power and influence will greatly improve. And the Chinese Government must give the international community an affirmative answer to this requirement.
The author is Associate Dean with the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China