[Viewpoint] Tempering expectations

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[Viewpoint] Tempering expectations

Relations between the United States and China are vital to the future of the Korean Peninsula. When the relationship is confrontational, presenting a solid front on the North Korea nuclear issue becomes more difficult.

And when the United States and China are on the same page as the world’s most powerful leaders, Korea and other middle powers in Asia are often left behind.

For that reason, leaders in both Koreas will be closely watching the Jan. 19 meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington, D.C.

Obama and Hu have met numerous times on the sidelines of various forums, including the G-20 Summit. But their only previous summit devoted exclusively to bilateral relations was in November 2009 in Beijing. That summit was criticized by the U.S. media because Beijing blocked Obama’s access to the Chinese public and because the U.S.-China joint statement contained somewhat controversial language about respecting China’s “core interests” - language that Beijing later used to justify its assertive stance in the South China Sea.

Some of the criticism was unfair since U.S. presidents Clinton and Bush also had their access to the Chinese public contained by the Chinese government. However, some senior Obama administration officials privately acknowledge that the signals sent to Beijing about accommodating Chinese core interests were probably not helpful in the context of the financial crisis and growing Chinese confidence about its position relative to the United States. Over the past year, the U.S. side has taken a subtle but markedly firmer stance towards China on issues ranging from the South China Sea to North Korea and human rights.

Strategically, this was unavoidable, given Beijing’s unhelpful stance after the sinking of the Cheonan and China’s aggressive stance towards Japan and Southeast Asia in various disputes. But senior officials in both Beijing and Washington have been concerned about the growing domestic criticism of China in the United States and the anti-American attitudes expressed by China’s netizens.

As a result, both sides have tried to stabilize the relationship in advance of Hu’s visit to Washington. Hu is still a follower of Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China should lay low and quietly build its power. Hu cares little for foreign affairs and is preoccupied with “peaceful development” and creation of a “harmonious society” at home.

He has stated that China’s most important foreign relationship is with the United States. He worries that a spiral of recrimination with Washington will destroy his own legitimacy, a smooth transition to Xi Jinping’s presidency in 2012 and the strategic framework put in place by Deng three decades ago. As a result, Hu and the leadership are using the summit in Washington to tone down China’s confrontational stance. The summit probably had a lot to do with Chinese intervention with North Korea to encourage a softer tone towards the South.

The summit also set the stage for moderately successful U.S.-China trade talks in the December Joint Committee on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) and the appreciation of the yuan by 3.2 percent against the dollar since June 19. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Beijing earlier this month and the resumption of military-to-military talks were the final pieces of the summit-induced cooperative stance from Beijing.

This righting of U.S.-China ties is important. Summits serve as reminders to both sides of the overall importance of stable U.S.-China ties to the international community. Summits in the United States are particularly important because the Chinese side has much more difficulty controlling the press spin. However, this U.S.-China summit will not be revolutionary or transformative. It puts a floor under the relationship for now, but it will not define the ceiling. Moreover, the adjustments China has made for the summit are almost entirely tactical and reversible. The country refused to commit to lasting military-to-military ties, making it clear that defense relations will be cut off again whenever the U.S. sells arms to Taiwan.

The appreciation of the yuan is not new. The commitments in the JCCT on intellectual property rights and maintaining an open investment opportunity are good, but much will depend on implementation. The statement on North Korea is vaguely cooperative, but there has been no fundamental change to Beijing’s inherently supportive stance towards Pyongyang.

In short, this summit will be important and necessary to put context around a difficult period in U.S.-China relations, to incentivize bureaucrats in both countries to cooperate and to reconfirm Hu and Obama’s commitment to building positive ties. That is good for Korea. However, the structural challenges in U.S.-China relations will remain.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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