U.S.-China Relations: Is a Sustained Cooperation Imaginable?

Following a year of open discord and repeated tension in Sino-American relations, China’s President Hu Jintao arrives in the United States this week on a state visit, the second such event between the two countries since 1997.

The world looks very different to both leaderships since the last state visit of a Chinese president. Following September 11, the United States initiated open-ended military conflicts in the Islamic world that diminished or at least deferred the possibilities of open U.S.-China strategic rivalry. China employed this respite to pursue its economic and military transformation, while avoiding overt challenges to American power and policy. In 2010, China’s aggregate economic power surpassed that of Japan and U.S.-China trade approached $400 billion, outcomes that few would have deemed possible a decade ago.

Shortly after entering office, the Obama administration proposed a new bilateral agenda in Sino-American relations, hoping to vest China in a larger framework for cooperative relations. At the conclusion of President Obama’s state visit to China in November 2009, the two leaderships affirmed a shared responsibility to address global challenges in the 21st century, pledging heightened cooperation in revitalizing the international economy, curbing nuclear non-proliferation, addressing climate change, and enhancing stability and security in Asia.

Progress on these ambitious goals over the ensuing year was decidedly mixed. The American economy remained mired in a jobless economic recovery, generating growing disgruntlement within the United States on China’s state-centered economic policies and Beijing’s unwillingness to consent to more rapid appreciation of the yuan. Military-strategic relations were equally unsettled. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. reconnaissance and surveillance activities in locations proximate to China’s territorial waters and air space, and continued restrictions on U.S. technology transfer policy all generated strenuous objections from Beijing, leading China to again sever military relations in early 2010.

Though both countries continued wide-ranging consultations, the atmosphere in bilateral relations remained edgy and contentious. China dissented openly from U.S. security strategy in Asia and the Pacific, with growing numbers of Chinese accusing the United States of trying to inhibit the growth of Chinese power. Beijing’s responses to egregious actions by North Korea, including the sinking of a South Korean corvette resulting in the death of 46 naval personnel, the unveiling of a newly constructed uranium enrichment facility, and the subsequent shelling of a South Korean coastal island, elicited virtually no criticisms from Beijing. Equally troubling, China accused the United States of fomenting regional tensions when the United States undertook military exercises with South Korea to counter Pyongyang’s actions.

In advance of this week’s state visit, China again sought to improve the atmosphere in bilateral relations. Secretary of Defense Gates visited Beijing in early January, marking the fuller resumption of defense ties. Beneath the veneer of renewed civility, however, deeper suspicions persist. Beijing’s initial flight test of a prototype stealth aircraft during Gates’s visit was a pointed reminder of the PLA’s continued military advancement. China’s repeated reference to the absence of “mutual strategic trust” is also a staple in nearly all official commentaries. Beijing clearly hopes for a surprise free summit, hoping to accommodate the United States through initiatives on trade and heightened Chinese investment in the United States. But with mounting disquiet in both defense establishments over how each perceives the other’s military policies and modernization objectives, the possibility of an open-ended strategic rivalry is also evident.

The Obama administration recognizes that this week’s visit could set the larger contours in U.S.-China relations for years to come. In successive speeches last week, Secretaries Geithner, Locke, and Clinton put forward U.S. hopes for sustained cooperation, hoping to elicit more explicit support from Beijing. But Hu Jintao is a cautious and risk averse politician, and it is unlikely that he has a mandate from other senior Chinese policy makers to endorse major initiatives during his visit, especially as Hu prepares to relinquish leadership in late 2012. This week will reveal much about China’s capacity and readiness to test larger possibilities with the United States, or to persist with a more self protective stance that will inhibit the fuller development of bilateral ties.