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The U.S. and China -- mending fences

There are security and economic measures the upcoming Washington summit of the leaders of China and the U.S. can advance to reduce distrust and enhance cooperation.

January 17, 2011|By Kenneth Lieberthal

Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the U.S. 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 the 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 most nations in the region, by contrast, see China adopting a harder edge to its diplomacy after years of stressing its "peaceful development." China is also modernizing its military and now is deploying naval vessels, missiles and other capabilities that threaten America's heretofore 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 U.S. to increase its presence and activities there. Asian nations are engaging with China fully on the economic side while asking the U.S. to make sure Beijing does not convert its economic weight into lopsided diplomatic and military advantage. But America should beware: If the U.S. 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 the U.S. American 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 an American 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 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.-Chinese 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 particular 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.

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