In a context of growing international political and economic friction between China and the United States, and a domestic political climate where China-bashing has become increasingly popular for both current leaders and presidential hopefuls, the future of Sino-U.S. relations concerns observers everywhere. For China as well as the United States, domestic politics is extremely important this year as Vice President Xi Jinping prepares to replace Hu Jintao as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. As both countries deal with internal politics and increasingly significant divergences on international affairs, Xi’s visit to the United States last week was a major topic of discussion among political analysts on both sides of the Pacific.
China and the United States have clashed on a variety of political and economic issues in the past few years. While recent differences on Syria come particularly easily to mind, there are also the perennial issues of human rights, intellectual property, and currency disputes, just to name a few. Furthermore, many view China’s growing military expenditures as a threat to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific. Despite U.S. assurances that it is not trying to contain China, the way the United States has been consolidating allied support in the region lately makes Chinese and Americans wonder how long the Sino-U.S. relationship will remain peaceful.
Further adding to the divergence of interests between the United States and China is the domestic climate in both countries. This election year has seen a slurry of anti-China comments from both Republican presidential candidates and President Obama. At a recent campaign stop in Michigan, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney vowed to “finally take China to the carpet and say ‘look you guys, I’m going to label you as a currency manipulator'” if he were elected as president. In his State of the Union Address last month, President Obama boasted of bringing trade cases against China “at nearly twice the rate as the last administration.” At a time when the U.S. economy is still lagging, blaming China for America’s financial woes is an easy way to ratchet up domestic support and gain popularity for the coming election. In China, a growing sense of pride in China’s world influence has also increased pressure on government leaders not to appear too acquiescent to American demands.
At the same time, despite significant differences in policy perspectives, both countries seem to reluctantly acknowledge each other’s importance on the world stage. This mutual recognition can be seen in the high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogues Obama and Hu initiated in 2009. Last year marked the third round of these bilateral forums, setting a tradition of communication that helps stabilize the Sino-U.S. relationship. Other signs of mutual acknowledgment include President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States last January and Vice President Biden’s visit to China last August. These formal visits by prominent officials bode well for the peaceful development of relations with China by showing respect and willingness to diplomatically engage on issues.
As the latest in a series of high-level exchanges, Vice President Xi’s visit to the United States reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-China relationship. In the State Department luncheon on February 14, Vice President Biden stated that, “Every day the affairs of our nations…grow more connected.” In a seemingly friendly response, Xi indicated that although there was no precedent for a “cooperative partnership” between the United States and China, such efforts would have “great and far-reaching significance.” Perhaps the friendliest stop on Mr. Xi’s visit was a trip to Muscatine, Iowa, where he stayed in 1985 as a member of a small Chinese delegation sent to learn about American agriculture. Although the trip obviously had political motives, it still showed a valiant effort by Xi to use his personal connection to the American heartland to reach out to the American people and perhaps signal his desire for continued Sino-U.S. cooperation.
While the success of Xi’s visit in both the United States and China is a positive sign for the future for bilateral relations, the United States should still proceed cautiously. Both countries definitely have an interest in maintaining peaceful relations for the sake of economics and global stability. Nevertheless, a host of differences on a range of world issues still provides fodder for future conflict. In order to avoid conflict with China and protect American interests, the United States should form realistic expectations of China and communicate clearly with the latter. Even if Xi is more friendly to the United States than his predecessors, he is not the only member of China’s top leadership. Change will not come quickly no matter what the United States does. As far as U.S. policy goes, however, the United States should continue to pursue its current path of high-level dialogue and communication. Establishing a relationship of mutual respect, if not complete trust, is vital to interacting with ultra-sensitive China. Only through fostering a friendlier, more open relationship with China can the U.S. hope to deal successfully with world issues.