A balancing act between two powers
By Ching Cheong
THE United States is willing to accommodate the rise of China - politically, economically and militarily - provided the process is peaceful and conducive to the US maintaining world leadership status.
This is the most salient conclusion from the White House meeting between the presidents of China and the US last week. In other words, China will continue to accept US supremacy, in exchange for a more amicable global environment for its rise.
At a joint press conference with his visiting Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao after their summit meeting, US President Barack Obama reminded China that it also has the US to thank for its rise.
'China's extraordinary economic growth... is a tribute to the Chinese people. But it's also thanks to decades of stability in Asia, made possible by America's forward presence in the region, by strong trade with America, and by an open international economic system championed by the United States of America,' he said.
By stating this at the beginning of the press conference, Mr Obama made it clear that US policies can affect China's rise.
In the US-China joint statement, the US reiterated that 'it welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China playing a greater role in world affairs'.
Mr Obama touched on this theme twice at the joint press conference. He defined two conditions for China's rise.
First, it has to be peaceful. He said: 'We just want to make sure that the rise... occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict either in the region or around the world.'
Second, it should tie in with US foreign objectives: The kind of partnership that Washington seeks with Beijing, according to Mr Obama, is one where China is a responsible actor on the world stage - a partner that ensures weapons of mass destruction do not fall into the wrong hands; a partner that helps deal with regional hot spots or issues like climate change.
If China can accept these two conditions, the US would make life easier for its rival in every respect.
Politically, China's core interests would be observed. The joint statement did not mention the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), one of the cornerstones of Washington's One China policy. Though Mr Obama referred to it at the press conference, the TRA has obviously been relegated to a less formal position.
Similarly on human rights, a sensitive issue for China, the US is willing to accept, if not embrace, the Chinese position.
'China has a different political system than we do. China is at a different stage of development than we are. We come from very different cultures with very different histories,' Mr Obama noted.
'We believe part of human rights is people being able to make a living and having enough to eat and having shelter and having electricity,' he said.
Observers pointed out that since China published its first White Paper on Human Rights in 1991, it has cited the ability to feed and clothe its people as its top contribution to human rights. It has also given reasons why freedom and democracy, as espoused by the West, are not for China. Two decades later, the US President seems to be echoing the same Chinese view of human rights.
Economically, the US is willing to give China what it wants: recognition of its market economy, as well as a commensurate position in the world financial framework.
In the joint statement, China 'welcomed the US' commitment to work towards China's market economy status (MES) in an expeditious manner'.
Such efforts will go a long way towards removing trade impediments, and will greatly enhance the entry of Chinese products into the US market, as well as US high-tech imports into China.
If the US takes the lead in granting MES to China, other Western developed countries will be compelled to follow suit.
The joint statement also said the US 'supports China's efforts over time to promote inclusion of the renminbi in the Special Drawing Rights basket'. This satisfies China's quest to be accorded a position in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) commensurate with its economic might. China's voting rights in the IMF were raised recently.
Militarily, the US is not going to edge China out. Both countries agreed to strengthen their military-to-military relationship and enhance cooperation on nuclear security, as well as deepen exchanges in the field of space, provided both sides establish mechanisms at all levels to avoid 'misunderstanding, misperception and miscalculation'.
Bilateral relations aside, the US-China joint statement read like a laundry list of world issues, from saving the earth to space cooperation, from fighting global security threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation to defusing regional and local disputes such as those in North-east Asia and Sudan.
All this shows that the US, after setting conditions for China's rise, is prepared psychologically to give China a greater presence on the world stage.
Viewed this way, the presidential summit represented a delicate balancing act, showing how the two powers can achieve substantial benefits through cooperation.
[Historical. Maybe in future, students of history will look to this moment as the point where US & China define their roles in the world for decades to come. ]
Both sides must dispel mistrust
By Goh Sui Noi, Senior Writer
THE summit last week between the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations, the United States and China, has been declared a modest success.
Chinese President Hu Jintao got the respect he wanted in the pomp and circumstance of a state visit, something he was denied on his last official visit to the US during the presidency of Mr George W. Bush.
US President Barack Obama made the points he wanted to make and received the right noises in response from the Chinese leader. One of these was an admission on Mr Hu's part that a lot needed to be done in China with regards to human rights. The US$45 billion (S$58 billion) in business deals, supporting 235,000 American jobs, that the Chinese inked did not hurt either.
The determined fence-mending of the leaders gave some needed momentum for the two sides to work on their differences after more than a year of acrimony. Much remains to be done to dispel the distrust between the two sides.
Part of that distrust is due to America's anxiety over the rise of China even as it faces a less than certain future if not decline. This anxiety has grown particularly since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, which the world's largest economy is slowly recovering from even as the Chinese economy has surged ahead.
In a Pew Research Centre survey conducted earlier this month, 43 per cent of Americans saw China as a serious problem, though only 20 per cent saw it as an adversary. So the American politician has found a convenient scapegoat in China, what with its undervalued currency and its huge trade surpluses with the US, not to mention a system of government that is different from the West. Thus, Senate majority leader Harry Reid called Mr Hu a 'dictator' in an interview.
With 53 per cent of Americans wanting the government to get tougher with the Chinese on trade and economic issues, it is no wonder that American lawmakers are considering a Bill that would punish China for keeping the yuan undervalued.
The Chinese, on their part, have in the past year given cause for not only Americans but also many in Asia to worry about their intentions.
Among Beijing's actions that were seen to be more assertive than usual: scuttling a deal at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change talks; threatening sanctions against US firms in response to a US arms sales deal with Taiwan; and telling American officials in closed-door meetings that China considered its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea a 'core interest', putting it on a par with Taiwan and Tibet and spooking countries in the region.
One reason for China's new assertiveness is its sense that with its growing national strength, it need not take things lying down. Another is its insecurity about US intentions - whether the superpower will contain its rise by strengthening its alliances in the region and building new partnerships with countries like India and Indonesia.
A third reason, according to the Americans, is Chinese hubris. In the run-up to and immediately after the summit, American analysts were mainly negative about Sino-US ties. This probably stems in part from the initial optimism they felt when Mr Obama took office and the subsequent disappointment as relations deteriorated.
Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University warned in an article that appeared during Mr Hu's visit that while the visit would help improve matters, 'the relationship will remain difficult as long as the Chinese suffer from hubris based on a mistaken belief in American decline'.
An even more pessimistic Professor Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University wrote: 'Rather than signalling the start of a new interval of cooperation and stability, Mr Hu's visit may actually mark the end of an era of relatively smooth relations between the US and China.'
He based his assessment on what he saw as a view in China that it was time for it to stand up - 'to right some of the wrongs suffered when the country was relatively weak, and to reclaim its rightful role in Asia and the world'.
Such pessimistic thinking is dangerous, because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. US and Chinese policy-makers should listen to their people. They are less pessimistic.
Ms Annie Lyerly of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who sends her child to Chinese classes, told the BBC how she viewed China: 'There's a little bit of fear and a lot of awe, and also a lot of interest.'
A Chinese netizen wrote about news of Mr Hu's reception at the White House: 'Just because the Americans treat us as a great power, do we need to go wild with joy?'
Another wrote: 'Only when China is strong will the Chinese live with dignity.'
Some netizens warned against American motives, but there were several who declared: 'Long Live Sino-American friendship!'
A majority of Americans, 58 per cent in the Pew survey, want their country to build a stronger relationship with China.
Both sides must act now to dispel the mistrust between them if they are to avoid a collision in the near future.