Recalibrating U.S.-China Relations

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States this week with its summit in Washington on Wednesday comes 14 months after President Obama’s trip to China. A joint Obama-Hu statement issued at the end of their November 2009 meeting focused, for the first time, on the need to reduce mutual distrust. Ironically, since then distrust has actually mushroomed. It is important to understand the reasons why.

Many Chinese believe that America is a declining No. 1 that will do anything in its power to prevent China, No. 2, from catching up. They thus bring deep suspicion to the table when they analyze American actions in Pakistan, India, the South China Sea and Northeast Asia. Put simply, while the Obama administration sees itself as reengaging fully in Asia after what it considers the relative neglect of the region under President George W. Bush, Beijing is prone to see this activity instead as an effort to mobilize the rest of Asia against China’s growing legitimate interests throughout the region.

The United States and many nations in the region, by contrast, see Beijing adopting a harder edge to its diplomacy after years of stressing its “peaceful development.” China is also modernizing its military and has deployed naval vessels, missiles and other capabilities that threaten America’s here-to-fore largely unhindered military access to the Western Pacific. Tensions inevitably result.

In this context, Washington has taken heart that countries throughout Asia are urging the United States to increase its presence and activities there. Asian nations are engaging with China fully on the economic side while asking the United States to make sure Beijing does not convert its economic weight into lopsided diplomatic and military advantage. But America should beware: If the United States primarily provides muscle as China expands its economic role in the region, then Asia will be a profit center for China and a cost center for America. U.S. interests require a better-balanced outcome than that, which means we must work more effectively with China.

There are both security and economic measures that the upcoming summit can advance to reduce mutual distrust and enhance effective cooperation.

The U.S. and Chinese military establishments have habitually suspended their limited high-level contacts to show displeasure whenever significant developments occur (such as the forced landing of the American EP-3 surveillance plane after a midair collision in 2001 or the U.S. arms sale offer to Taiwan in 2010). The result is military-to-military discussions that are infrequent and anemic. The two militaries are now too powerful and operate in too close proximity in Asia to permit this situation to continue.

Following up on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ trip to China last week,  the Washington summit should endorse a new era in U.S.-Chinese military contacts. This should include regular high-level discussions on such key issues as future contingencies in North Korea and Iran and the establishment of “rules of the road” for naval activities in China’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Both sides would benefit greatly from having its junior and mid-level officers spend serious time at one another’s military institutes. America already does this with many other major militaries.

Economically, both sides must address the sensitive issues of currency valuation, protectionism, technology transfer requirements and intellectual property rights. Major American businesses that formerly supported good U.S.-China relations now harbor more pessimistic expectations of their future there. It is in Beijing’s interest to provide a basis for greater confidence. With America mired in high unemployment and a weak economic recovery and China concerned about inflation and trade protectionism abroad, both sides need to focus on improving economic and trade ties on a sustainable basis.

One area — cooperation on development and deployment of clean energy technologies — holds particularly great promise. This is a global growth area, and the two nations’ capabilities are now relatively complementary. Together we can produce innovative technologies and scale them up far more rapidly and inexpensively than either side can alone. This requires carefully structured deals, but it holds out the potential of investment and job creation in both directions, substantial new sources of profit, enhanced trust based on mutual interests and significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Both the United States and China are pledging to make major structural adjustments in their economies over the coming five years. The United States seeks to reduce debt and increase exports, while China wants to enhance domestic demand and become less dependent on exports. The quality of the relationship will likely be determined more by the success of these respective efforts than by any other single factor. This week’s summit should therefore establish the mechanisms for coordination and detailed exchanges of information necessary to enable each side, where possible, to adopt policies that further the other country’s economic reforms.

There is no bilateral relationship more important than the U.S.-China relationship, and the upcoming summit provides an important opportunity to put this relationship on a better trajectory.