China gets assertive as US ties grow
MONTEREY, California - Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama met last Wednesday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 financial summit in London. It was their first meeting since Obama took office two months ago and hence attracted a lot of attention.
Attention it deserves. It was not just a meeting to get acquainted but one that both gives an indication of where bilateral relations stand and sets the road map for the future.
Overall Sino-US relations remain stable thanks to both countries' efforts in promoting dialogue and consultation, developing mechanisms for managing disputes and cooperating in areas where Beijing and Washington have common interests. While the former George W Bush administration's many foreign policy decisions were controversial, its China policy has enabled the Obama administration to focus on strengthening bilateral cooperation in dealing with global economic challenges.
Indeed, as China's economic power continues to grow - albeit at a lower rate than previously - so does its potential influence in crafting solutions to help the world economy recover. Potential, that is, as Beijing still wavers between assuming a more proactive and prominent position on the global economic stage and keeping a cautious, low-profile posture.
But a more confident assertiveness is nonetheless emerging, expressed in Premier Wen Jiabao's concerns over how the Obama administration's recovery plans could affect China's huge holdings of US debts, and in Chinese central banker Zhou Xiaochuan's proposal to replace the dollar with an international reserve currency.
It does not mean that China is poised to challenge America's dominant position in the global economy, downsized as it is. But it does suggest that Beijing is becoming more active in expressing its concerns, making its voice heard, and demanding - tentatively, that is - that its core interests be protected.
Not surprisingly, the Hu-Obama meeting focused largely on these economic challenges, the roles that the two countries can play and areas in which they can cooperate to head off a global recession and get the economy back on track. Both countries are implementing the announced stimulus packages. The adjustments they are making - China promoting greater domestic demand in consumption and the US restoring confidence in credit and lending, as well as better savings rates over time - could make important contributions to the recovery and stability of the global economy.
One important element of the bilateral relationship both sides are now emphasizing is its comprehensive nature that includes consultation on regional and global issues and covers a whole range of economic, military and geostrategic areas.
On the economic front, the countries should carefully manage, monitor and implement their stimulus plans, avoid protectionist tendencies and continue to address the ongoing disputes over currency evaluation, market access, trade imbalances and liberalization of trade in sectors that continue to be subject to stringent controls.
Energy security, climate change and environmental protection are areas in which the two countries have good reasons to cooperate. The Bush administration started the process of consultation on these issues through the Strategic Economic Dialogue and the Obama administration indicates it will continue and expand cooperation in these areas.
The Hu-Obama meeting also reiterated the importance of bilateral consultation and cooperation on regional and global security issues, including the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, anti-terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Obama's emphasis on multilateral diplomacy in dealing with international and regional security challenges and his willingness to endorse multilateralism as the more appropriate way of building trust among states is an encouraging departure from the practices of the previous administration.
Despite the overall positive assessments by both leaders of the current status of bilateral relations and their commitments to moving them to a higher level, there remain areas of significant differences, mutual suspicions and deep distrust on both sides. And the process of handling these potentially destabilizing issues remains inadequate, if not completely lacking.
The recent encounter between Chinese ships and the US intelligence-gathering vessel in the South China Sea, and the newly released Pentagon report on Chinese military power remind us that the long-term stability of Sino-US relations could be negatively affected due to misunderstanding, misperception and misgivings that could lead to miscalculation and therefore mismanagement of the bilateral relationship.
Thus it is particularly unfortunate that the two countries have yet to implement bilateral strategic and military-to-military dialogue that addresses nuclear activities, defense modernization, power projection and maritime security issues. The newly revamped US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue announced at the Hu-Obama meeting is a good step to elevate the level and comprehensiveness of bilateral consultation. But the fact the process in effect will reduce the frequency of such high-level meetings from the previous three times a year to only one at a time when such consultation and its regularity is much desired raises serious concerns.
And defense is ostensibly left out of this high-level process. To be sure, there are Defense Consultative Talks at the under secretary of defense/deputy chief-of-staff level and a military maritime consultative meeting in place, but these also suffer from infrequency and a lack of significant progress over the past decade. A number of attempts, including one on the strategic nuclear issue as proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last year, have yet to be fully and officially launched. Nor have rules on maritime engagement been delineated, despite the potential risk of incidents due to the growing encounters between the two countries' navies in the South China Sea.
The Hu-Obama meeting announced the upcoming visit of the US chief of naval operation to China and perhaps a reciprocal visit by senior Chinese military leaders, but much more is needed to strengthen bilateral military-to-military contacts from high-level visits and exchanges of military officers to port calls and better communication and understanding between the world's most powerful and largest militaries.
Obama has a lot on his plate as he confronts both domestic and international economic and security challenges and renews America's leadership that is based on mutual respect and multilateral diplomacy. But he could seize the moment to deepen the US-China relationship in the military as well as the strategic and economic spheres. Hopefully, the goodwill and commitments expressed at last Wednesday's meeting will be sustained in the months and years to come.
Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, and an associate professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.