BEIJING, China — With top-level U.S.-China talks set for Beijing this week, Sino-American relations are once again grabbing headlines. Here are five things you should know about the U.S.-China relationship.
1. It’s never been easy
Headlines proclaim a partnership fraught with problems, as the United States and China try to manage a relationship that’s more interconnected than ever before. But consider that the U.S. and the current ruling party of China have a long and storied past full of much bigger and more dangerous troubles. Today’s trade frictions and squabbles over issues like censorship and intellectual property rights seem downright friendly compared to decades past, particularly the open animosity before the two countries established diplomatic relations three decades ago. Most experts on U.S.-China relations say that ties between the two nations have never been stronger than during the past few years.
2. U.S. President Barack Obama is not a rock star in China
For a number of reasons, and in no small part due to the careful controls on media, China’s citizenry rarely gets too excited about the personality of a U.S. president. Former President Bill Clinton may have been an exception, in part because he was lauded for pushing China’s entry to the World Trade Organization.
In contrast to parts of Europe, Africa and elsewhere, the response to the latest American president has been downright tepid in some Chinese circles, and muted in most. His natural supporters in China — human rights activists and other government critics — were deflated about Obama right from the start of his term when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that human rights would not be part of the overall economic dialogue as in years past. The two sides have, however, restarted their dialogue on human rights after a two-year hiatus.
Obama’s dealings with China have been marred by the failed climate change talks in Copenhagen and an escalating series of trade spats and the Obama administration has toughened its tone on China in recent months. This week’s meeting should provide a window into current attitudes.
3. The currency kerfuffle is nothing new
The U.S. has been pressuring China for at least six years to stop pegging the yuan to the dollar, an issue expected to take a central role this week. China finally ended its decade-long lock in 2005 with a one-time revaluation and a floating, but strictly managed, exchange rate. A de facto dollar peg returned in 2008 with the onset of the global financial crisis and has not loosened since. The Obama administration argues, as did its predecessors, that an undervalued yuan gives China an unfair trade currency.
4. Major developments are rare
In the new era of dialogue, U.S.-China relations tend to move slowly, with lots of talking, negotiating and meetings. Major announcements are few and far between, and instead, change happens incrementally. The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) that starts in Beijing on Monday is one more talk in the ongoing series of talks between the U.S. and Chinese governments, which appear to have cooled and possibly resolved issues where tension may have prevailed in years past.
5. China’s clout continues to grow
Past meetings of high-ranking officials from the two countries often morphed into the U.S. lecturing China on trade and other issues. The tables turned at the first SED meeting in Beijing last year, when China took over lecturing the U.S., telling America to get its financial house in order. Trade spats and issues of values aside, China still owns a large percentage of U.S. debt and is concerned about its investment. Although Beijing has sold some of its holdings this year and Japan replaced China as the single largest holder of U.S. debt, China-U.S. relations will not decline anytime soon.