Thursday, January 13, 2011

Handling Sino-American relations with care

CHINESE President Hu Jintao is arriving in Washington next week for a state visit that has been likened in importance to the visit by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, shortly after the inauguration of Sino-American relations.

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, former president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, the latest visit should "aim for a definition of the relationship between the two countries that does justice to the global promise of constructive cooperation between them".

The Deng visit, he said, crystallised United States-Chinese efforts to oppose Soviet expansionism and marked the beginning of China's economic transformation, which was facilitated by its new diplomatic ties with the US. The visit by Hu to the White House will be his first since 2006, when he was subjected to indignities that he no doubt resented.

For one thing, the Bush administration refused to characterise it as a state visit, even though it was the Chinese leader's first trip to Washington after becoming president. Instead of getting a state dinner at the White House, he was merely invited to lunch.
Moreover, the White House was so unprepared that when the Chinese national anthem was played, the announcer said it was the anthem of the "Republic of China" -- the name of the government of Taiwan -- when the proper name should have been the People's Republic of China.

Lastly, and worst of all, while the Chinese leader was speaking, he was heckled by a member of the Falun Gong. The heckling went on for several minutes while the Secret Service did nothing, awaiting the arrival of the local police to eject the heckler.

Hopefully, this year, none of these things will happen. The Obama administration should treat the Chinese visitor with the dignity that he deserves.

Certainly, the mistake on the national anthem could only have reflected a lack of appreciation of the importance of the visitor and the country he represented.

The Hu visit to Washington will follow the visit to Beijing this week by the American secretary of defence, Robert Gates, whose request to visit China last year was rebuffed by the Chinese.

Last year was a bad year for US-China relations, following a very good year marked by a visit to China by President Barack Obama. However, when the Obama administration last January announced an arms package for Taiwan, Beijing reacted furiously, cancelling military-to-military contacts and threatening to punish American companies involved in the manufacture of weapons sold to Taiwan, even though all the arms were defensive in nature.

The relationship was affected again in February when Obama met the Dalai Lama, a visit that had been postponed from the previous year because Washington did not want to affect the presidential trip to China.

The Gates visit this week is the first such high-level military exchange since then.

While both sides hope that the resumption of military contacts will help pave the way for Hu's visit to Washington, the military-to-military relationship is at a sensitive stage.

For one thing, China is feeling exceedingly confident, having weathered the global financial crisis well, and its military influence is expanding at a time when the American defence budget is being cut.

Beijing is developing anti-ship missiles, dubbed "carrier killers", as well as stealth fighter jets that can potentially challenge American forces in the Pacific, seriously impeding the US ability to defend Taiwan if it should come under attack by the mainland. This was clearly on the defence secretary's mind as he journeyed to Beijing. He told reporters aboard his plane that Chinese military advances were worrisome and the US had to "respond appropriately".

The Sino-American relationship is also beset with other problems, including reciprocal charges of currency manipulation, sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea and tackling the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran.

And China wants the US to respect its "core interests", in particular, ceasing the sale of arms to Taiwan.

Even though both Beijing and Washington agree that their relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, it is a complicated relationship and needs to be handled with great care by both sides.

The Hu state visit next week is unlikely to see the resolution of any of the major issues confronting the two countries. But if it results in a clearer understanding by each side of the other's position, the trip will be considered a success.
Frank Ching, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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