For China Mutual Respect Is Key

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Vice President Joe Biden talks with Chinese Vice President Xi and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger By Ernest Corea*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - He came, he listened, he bought soybeans. That would be a reasonably accurate but cynical summary report of the February 13-17 visit to the US by China's Vice President Xi Jinping. It would miss out, of course, on other aspects of the visit, the complexities and nuances of the bilateral relationship, and its significance in broad global terms.

(About soybeans: When Xi visited Iowa, where he had stayed when he previously visited on an agricultural mission, officials accompanying him this time around, signed agreements under which China will buy up to 20 million tons of soybeans. Ironically, agricultural scientists consider China to be the original home of soybean.)

Xi's visit was hosted by Vice President Joe Biden who was earlier Xi's guest in China (2011). Thus, it lacked the ceremonial rituals of a state visit. For that, he will have to await his actual elevation to China's presidency which is considered a certainty – barring some unforeseen political upheaval in Beijing.

For now, Xi's visit had to be no more than a "meet and greet" event accompanied, by opportunities for carefully managed exposure to the US political and trade leadership, and for high level discussions (with President Obama, among others) on some of the issues that bedevil bilateral relations.

These include US concerns about China's trade practices, currency rates, patent and trade mark infringements, gross human rights violations, military posturing in the Asia-Pacific, and diplomatic clashes.

China is also concerned about US trade practices (such as not permitting certain types of high technology sales), military posturing in the Asia-Pacific area, continued strategic relationship with the government in Taiwan, perceived support for Tibetan "splittism," and diplomatic clashes.

Although Xi is described as being more comfortable when he is not tied down to a script, he was not given the opportunity to speak unscripted at a press conference where his capacity for "ad libbing" would have been tested.

Four Decades

Xi's visit took place 40 years after President Nixon’s "breakthrough" visit to Beijing which ended the pretense that Taiwan is China and China is not, acknowledged the existence of one China – represented by the People's Republic – not two, formally recognized the People's Republic as a major player in world affairs, and paved the way for China to make a "great leap forward" on the economic front.

Xi's stay in the US included a stopover at the White House on Valentine's Day, February 14, causing a scurry of comments and expectations that like the young lovers who exchange copious amounts of chocolates in symbolic gestures of sweet togetherness, Obama and Xi would go all lovey-dovey. Secretary of State Clinton was among those who switched from realism to mild sentimentality for the occasion.

It takes much more than Valentine's Day frivolity, however, to develop and cement a bilateral relationship. What the US State Department wants from Xi's government, for instance, is not a box of chocolates or a lovely bunch of roses but a visa for Susan Johnson Cook, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom to visit China. Her visa application was "frozen."

Xi's visit took place immediately after a Security Council resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria failed, thus not only rendering the council ineffective but also offending the Arab League whose diplomats helped to draft the resolution.

Voting was 13 to two in favour of the resolution, but the two negative votes cast by China and Russia constituted a double veto. Eight hundred more Syrians died in the conflict the next day. UN Secretary General Ban condemned the council's failure to adopt the resolution. US permanent representative Susan Rice called the vetoes outrageous. (The US, however, is the UN's "veto champion," particularly when it comes to protecting Israel.)

'Sound and Stable'

On the Chinese side, the official assessment of the bilateral relationship as publicly stated on the eve of Xi's visit was positive. The confident and upbeat approach to the relationship was clear in the official transcript of answers to a set of questions submitted to Xi by the Washington Post at the request of the Chinese government. The transcript was published on February 13.

Xi asserted that in the 40 years since Nixon's visit to China, "bilateral relations have forged ahead despite some twists and turns and made historic achievements bringing huge benefits to both countries and peoples. China-US relations have become one of the most important, dynamic and promising bilateral relationships in today’s world."

“What happened over the past 40 years tells us that a sound and stable China-US relationship is crucial for both countries and for peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large."

He pointed out that between 1985 when he first visited the US and now, the value of bilateral trade had risen from $77 billion to $440 billion. In the same period, he said, "mutual visits" rose from 10,000 to over 3 million.

Separately, China Daily in its Febuary 10-12 weekend edition, quoted deputy foreign minister Cui Tiankai as saying that Xi's visit "will present a very important opportunity to enhance mutual trust." Cui said as well that "the (current) level of mutual trust is lagging behind what is required for the further development of (our) bilateral relations."

The purpose of Xi's visit, Cui told a media briefing in Beijing, "is to further advance the cooperative partnership that is based on mutual respect and mutual benefits."

Spousal Preference

The official view is in harmony, more or less, with public perceptions. Recent surveys indicate that over 90 percent of China's population considers the bilateral relationship important, and would support further cooperation. Areas most favoured for collaboration are the economy and energy (67 percent), culture, education and science (64 percent), and diplomacy (63 percent).

A substantial minority of Chinese (40 percent) would like to marry Americans. Slightly over 70 percent believe that US culture has a positive influence on China. This is 18 percentage points higher than the comparable figure in 2007.

On the US side, Richard Wike, Associate Director of the Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project, when asked "how do Americans view China?" responded: "On balance, Americans rate China favourably. A survey conducted in March and April 2011 by the Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project found that 51 percent expressed a positive opinion of China, while 36 percent offered a negative rating.

"But Americans have real concerns about China's economic might – 53 percent said China's economic growth is bad for the US. When it comes to the countries that Americans see posing the most danger to the US, 22 percent cited China in a January 2012 poll by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, about the same as did so in 2011 (Iran was at the top of the list at 28 percent)."

The US corporate sector is highly supportive of stronger trade and investment ties with China. "Foreign investment already supports 5 million direct jobs and millions of indirect jobs. We need to negotiate more bilateral investment treaties," Thomas Donahue, president and CEO of US Chamber of Commerce said in his annual State of American Business speech.

Loud Grumbles

Although mutual concerns were addressed during Xi's meetings with Obama and Biden, there were no public histrionics. The Chinese are well aware, however, of the xenophobic rhetoric on the Republican campaign trail.

The decibel level of grumbles against the trend of American manufacturing migrating to China is likely to rise when the Democratic/Republican contest begins in earnest. Obama has already launched a campaign for manufacturing to be in-sourced – brought back to the US, primarily from China.

Some of the practices that sully bilateral relations are more easily addressed than others. For example, anybody who has visited China would have noted that effective policing can end the widespread practice of "knock-offs" of a wide range of manufactured items from underwear to electronics being openly sold.

Some issues have emotional overtones. The People's Republic suspects that the agitation for a "free" Tibet is externally manipulated, and will not change their policy on the permanent nature of Tibet's position within the Chinese polity.

The fact that Ambassador Cook's visa application was held up demonstrates the sensitivity of the People's Republic at the possibility of intrusive religious activism, however diplomatically conducted. (The Chinese are not alone on this point.)

The continued strategic relationship between the US and Taiwan causes political aggravation in Beijing because the relationship, which includes direct arms sales to the Taiwanese, contradicts the fundamental premise that Taiwan is a part of China and not a separate political entity. Even if the People's Republic could prove that history is on its side, the "Taiwan lobby" is still strong enough to campaign against any change in the US-Taiwan relationship.

The issue of human rights is tricky as well. The US Government considers human rights considerations inviolable. Few Chinese officials know as much about the consequence of human rights deprivation as Xi does. His father, a hero of China's revolution, was later imprisoned for 16 years by Chairman Mao. But Xi espouses the official line, obviously, whatever his personal feelings might be.

China places the issue in the context of its own perception of the need to maintain a balance between national security concerns and human rights. The US has on occasion veered round to this position, as in the use of torture and rendition, and the complex debacle that Is encapsulated by the single word: Guantanamo.

Four Pillars

Xi was too polite a visitor and too skilled a politician to be publicly agitated over any of these prickly issues. Where the US Government expressed concern his reaction was to say that action had already been taken and more could and would follow. His comments were splattered, however, with direct references to "mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual benefits."

He also laid out four potential pillars of collaboration. Here is a summary:

First: continue to increase China-US mutual understanding.

Second, respect each other's core interests.

Third, strive to deepen the mutually beneficial and win-win pattern of China-US cooperation.

Fourth, continue to strengthen coordination and cooperation in international affairs and global issues.

The full version of these summary points may be accessed at

Consider This

So, let's consider this.

The US and China cannot be strategic allies in the foreseeable future; there is too much that divides them. The US is also obliged by a number of compulsions to maintain a balance between its relations with China and its dealings with other Asian nations.

The US and China cannot nurture strategic hostility; that would eventually lead to a flare-up, big or small.

They can, however, maintain strategic partnerships when an honest calculation of national interests shows the clear existence of symmetries.

Xi listed a number of areas in which the US and China have already collaborated. They included: climate change, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and the development of and possession of nuclear weapons by any Middle East country.

He said, too, that there has been US-China coordination "in addressing such hot spot issues as Afghanistan, South Asia, Sudan, and the Middle East."

A foreign service officer who has served in China points out that in his experience when the national interests of the two countries are congruent, China does not hesitate to be a collaborative partner.

For the 21st century, a continuation of this approach is worth pursuing. Unfortunately, in politics and diplomacy, not everything that’s worth doing gets done. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 21, 2012]

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

This article appears in the writer's regular column 'Consider This' in February-March 2012 issue of Global Perspectives, a magazine for international cooperation, produced by IDN in partnership with the Global Cooperation Council – a non-governmental organisation campaigning for genuine cooperation and fair globalization.

Copyright © 2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:

Picture: Vice President Joe Biden talks with Chinese Vice President Xi and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a luncheon at the State Department, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. Credit: Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

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