Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Fresh Hope for US-China Cooperation

| January 26, 2009

ALONG WITH the inauguration of President Obama, this month marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of US-Chinese diplomatic relations. Hopefully, the new administration will inject fresh hope into the longstanding, but at times unsteady, relationship.

History tells us that usually it takes some time for new US presidents to fully develop their perceptions of and policies toward China. When President Bill Clinton first took office, he linked China's trade privileges to its human rights record; eventually he separated these two issues and learned to regard China as a strategic partner. When President George W. Bush was first elected, he considered China as a strategic competitor. Now Bush is regarded as Beijing's friend. Despite opposition at home, he did not change his mind about attending the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

No matter what change the new administration will bring about, there are some immutable factors in US-Chinese relations. First is mutual dependence; bilateral trade is a good example. China and the United States have become each other's second largest trade partner. In recent years, the US rate of investment in China remains higher than the average US rate elsewhere abroad. The second factor is mutual interest. There are many US foreign policy priorities — be it North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues or the financial crisis and climate change — that need China's partnership.

The power gap between China and the United States will not be changed easily. The rise of new powers, like China and India, understandably causes concern in the United States, though this is often because of overestimated capabilities. A more realistic understanding of China's power status, as well as its foreign policy oriented toward harmony, will help reduce the perceived Chinese threat and ease the spirit of competition.

The difference in values between the two countries will also remain. The exceptionalism and sense of mission on the US side will continue to cause issues concerning human rights and democracy, which are sensitive matters in bilateral relations. To be precise, it is not that China opposes human rights and democracy; it's the way the United States intervenes and its lack of understanding of Chinese values that frustrates China.

Stepping carefully around sensitive issues is crucial in maintaining a stable and constructive China-US relationship. An ancient Chinese philosopher tells the story of the dragon — that usually the dragon is gentle and you can ride on it. But under the throat of the dragon, there are some reverse scales that are untouchable. If you try to stroke those scales up, the dragon must kill you. Taiwan is one of China's reverse scales. It has been emphasized time and again by Chinese leaders that Taiwan is the most sensitive issue at the core of US-Chinese relations. In a survey in China seeking public opinion on "the most important areas in Sino-US relations," 80 percent of respondents chose "Taiwan."

Looking to the future, there are several important steps to handle relations between the two nations properly. First, it is important to envision bilateral relations in their largest dimensions because the way US-Chinese relations develop has a major impact on the world. If the world's largest developed country and largest developing country can create a model of cooperation, it would be a blessing for the whole world. Second, the two countries should build on existing strategic dialogues on political, economic, cultural, and other issues and create a crisis management mechanism, which is currently lacking. Last but not least, they should deepen mutual understanding at the grassroots level, including the general public and media.

The relationship with the United States is expected to remain one of China's most important. For Washington, relations with China may not claim as high a priority, given the many hot potatoes on the US plate. But the Chinese are hopeful. There is no choice but for the most powerful nation to work constructively with a reemerging power like China.

This year is the year of the bull in China. Hopefully, the inauguration of Barack Obama will usher in a bullish period for US-Chinese relations.

Anne Wu is an associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Anne.“Fresh Hope for US-China Cooperation.” The Boston Globe, January 26, 2009.

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