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Updated: January 17, 2011 23:05 IST

An occasion for both sides to clear air

Ananth Krishnan
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Despite some differences with the United States, scholars in China have called for a much-needed stabilising of the relationship, considering the two countries’ deep economic interdependence and convergence of interests. File photo
AP Despite some differences with the United States, scholars in China have called for a much-needed stabilising of the relationship, considering the two countries’ deep economic interdependence and convergence of interests. File photo

Growing mistrust on a range of issues, from American diplomacy in East Asia to trade, clouds relations as Hu Jintao travels to Washington.

As Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Washington on Tuesday, opinion in China is divided on whether the world's two biggest powers can bring an increasingly strained relationship back on track.

The last year, officials and analysts here acknowledge, has been exceptionally challenging for bilateral ties, with new tensions surfacing in almost every sphere of engagement.

Even in recent weeks in the lead-up to Mr. Hu's visit, the two countries have sparred over a range of issues. On trade, the United States has hit out at China's valuation of its currency. China has responded by attacking the Federal Reserve's $ 600 billion bond-buying move to make the dollar more competitive.

On North Korea, the two countries' positions still remain far apart, even after months of intense negotiations. The U.S. has continued pressuring China to take a more proactive role to rein in its neighbour. China, on the other hand, has expressed displeasure with the U.S. for fanning the flames in the region by holding military drills with South Korea, and rejecting a return to talks.

But at the heart of the recent strategic mistrust is Washington's re-engagement with East Asia, which has prompted renewed fears in Beijing of a U.S.-led strategy of “containment” against China. On this front, analysts say, it is crucial for both sides to use the upcoming visit to clear the air, even if, in the near-term, tensions are unlikely to subside, with China's rising regional ambitions expected to continue rubbing up against Washington's reluctance to cede strategic space.

“The visit is important because the bilateral relations have been going down,” Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University and a prominent Chinese voice on U.S. policy, told The Hindu. “The visit will stop the deterioration for a short period, but it cannot solve all strategic differences between these two countries.”

In East Asia, Mr. Yan said it was natural for China to seek a greater role as its influence grows. “China's policy of keeping a low profile is improper for a rising power which is already number two in the world,” he said. “That policy has made surrounding countries suspicious about China's strategic motivations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear in a speech at the State Department on Friday that the Obama Administration would continue “practicing robust regional engagement” in the Asia-Pacific.

“Some in China worry that the United States is bent on containing their rise and constraining their growth — a view that is stoking a new streak of assertive Chinese nationalism,” she said.

Ms. Clinton said the U.S. had renewed its alliances with its allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines — as well as deepen partnerships with India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand. “A more robust and coherent regional architecture in Asia benefits everyone, including China.”

That is, of course, far from how this diplomacy is being seen in China. Shen Dingli, a leading strategic analyst who heads the Centre for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, in a recent essay highlighted the two countries' conflicting interests in the Asia-Pacific as a significant source of concern for the future.

This was particularly evident, he noted, during the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi last July, where the U.S. and China traded heated exchanges. This followed China's laying claim to the whole of the South China Sea, which the U.S. described as an issue that was in its national interest. There are fears, Mr. Shen said, “that such confrontations may become a regular occurrence, with competition on maritime rights intensifying.”

Despite the differences, scholars in China have called for a much-needed stabilising of the relationship, in consideration of the two countries' deep economic interdependence and convergence of interests on issues such as North Korea, where both are seeking to defuse tensions.

“To me, the first priority [during the visit] should be given to addressing the diversities and differences between China and the U.S. for the sake of stabilising their strategic relations,” said Mr. Yan.

Keywords: U.S.-China ties

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