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February 9th, 2009:

China Looks For Signs Of Change In US Relations

Wang Xiangwei, SCMP – Updated on Feb 09, 2009

The first signs of any winds of change in Sino-US relations are expected to emerge from the forthcoming talks between US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese leaders later this month. Mrs Clinton is scheduled to visit Beijing on February 20-22 as part of her first trip to Asia since taking on the job as America’s top diplomat.

The results of the talks are important because they are likely to provide definite markers of a new framework for the relationship between the world’s most developed country and the world’s biggest developing country.

The US side has already dropped strong hints of what it has in mind, worrying policymakers in Beijing and raising expectations of complications to the countries’ already complex relations. Those include US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s remark that Beijing is a currency manipulator and US President Barack Obama’s decision to make climate change a focal point in bilateral dialogue.

Publicly, mainland officials and analysts hope Sino-US ties will remain stable despite the initial controversies brought each time by a change of administration.

When George W. Bush came to power eight years ago, he labelled China a “strategic competitor”, a definition that initially caused serious concerns about bilateral ties. But later on, his administration changed its tune and counted Beijing as a “stakeholder”, and towards the end of his presidency, the bilateral relationship was hailed as the “best” in recent times.

There has been a popular but simplistic view of Sino-US ties in Beijing’s corridors of power – the overall bilateral relations are usually more stable when Republicans, rather than Democrats, occupy the White House. This is not least because Republicans usually focus on trade and investment, issues the Chinese are happy to address, while Democrats dwell more on human rights, labour issues, Tibet and the environment, which tend to make Beijing uncomfortable and cause more ups and downs in relations.

The Obama administration has already indicated that its China policy will be different from that of the Bush
administration, which focused on economic issues.

In her Senate confirmation hearing, Mrs Clinton called for a new, “comprehensive” China policy that would
incorporate a broad range of issues rather than just the economic questions that have dominated discussions for years.

So it is interesting to note that Mr Geithner fired the first shot by quoting Mr Obama as saying that Beijing was a currency manipulator, a term the Bush administration consistently refrained from using.

Mainland officials and experts have publicly played down the impact, pointing out that the administration has since retreated from that line, and Mr Obama called President Hu Jintao partly to pacify the Chinese side.

But privately, they are worried that the US Treasury secretary’s remark is a strong indicator of rising protectionist sentiment in the United States, which is mired in its worst economic recession for decades. China will become the easy target and scapegoat, with some US lawmakers and economists stepping up efforts to blame China’s high savings rate and undervalued yuan for their country’s economic woes.

The Obama administration’s decision to make climate change a focal point in bilateral dialogue will also complicate relations. In theory, it makes perfect sense that the world’s two biggest polluters should stop sparing and work together to combat global warming and conserve energy, co-operation that could bring the countries closer.

But the reality is that as China’s leaders try to do whatever they can to stimulate the economy, they will have huge difficulties meeting US demands and agreeing to set caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The words “environmental protection” are barely mentioned nowadays in official media as coverage focuses on ways to boost the economy.