Hu’s Visit and U.S.-China Tensions

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Washington today for a summit meeting with President Obama following spats over economic and military issues that have created a chill in bilateral relations. This follows Secretary Gates’s visit just last week to Beijing for discussions with Defense Ministry officials. On the Huffington Post, I have a piece that looks at the current state of U.S.-China relations in the context of these visits:

“The process of repairing [the U.S.-China relationship] appears to be off to a rocky start. A key objective of Secretary Gates was to get China’s military leadership to agree to a wide-ranging dialogue on strategic issues, including nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defenses, space weapons, and cyber warfare. His hosts rebuffed his initiative, agreeing only to a very limited dialogue on such second-tier issues as combating piracy and cooperating on international peacekeeping missions. Chinese officials indicated that Washington would need some policy changes – especially moderate its willingness to sell arms to Taiwan – before a dialogue on larger strategic issues could take place. The most the Defense Ministry would agree to do in the meantime was “study” Gates’ broader proposal.

“The lack of a meaningful military dialogue frustrates a persistent U.S. goal – to get Beijing to be more transparent regarding both the level of its military spending and the extent of its geopolitical ambitions – especially in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Recent reports of China’s possible breakthroughs in nuclear technology and stealth aircraft have intensified Washington’s concerns.”

The complex U.S.-China relationship has always had elements of both partnership and rivalry. The partnership component has tended to figure more prominently, especially in the economic arena where the benefits to both parties are substantial and widely appreciated. But the balance is now shifting toward the competitive end of the spectrum. There are many reasons for this, including the stress that arises whenever the dominant economic and military player in the international system encounters a rapidly rising great power. However, the current tensions between the United States and China also are the product of the sharply different political systems, histories, cultures, and agendas of the two countries.

The shift to a relationship in which rivalry may top cooperation poses serious challenges for leaders in both countries. Strategic and economic rivalry can easily escalate into viewing the competitor as an adversary, and even an outright enemy. Given the importance of the bilateral relationship, not only for the United States and China, but for the health of the international economic system and the future of global peace, it is imperative that both sides seek to manage and contain their disagreements. The Hu-Obama summit offers an opportunity to advance that process, and one hopes that the two leaders do not waste the opportunity.