TAIPEI, Taiwan — Are the United States and China friends? Enemies? Partners? Rivals?
Ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to the United States this week, observers are struggling to define a thorny relationship that increasingly defies characterization.
"I don't want to use simple words," said China-U.S. relations expert Shi Yinhong, when asked to define ties between the two countries. "The U.S. and China have a relationship which is complex. But compared to the past, I think the strategic rivalry is increasing."
Last year the two countries grappled with a long list of issues that bedeviled relations: How to deal with North Korea, the value of China's currency, a massive trade gap, the South China Sea, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, climate change and the Dalai Lama, just for starters.
Shi, from Beijing's Renmin University, said China's priority during the U.S. visit will be to "stabilize" relations after that turbulent period. But he doubted there will be any "historic breakthroughs" on the big problems.
He downplayed talk of a joint statement or declaration to guide U.S.-China relations, as suggested by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
"Dr. Brzezinski is very old and doesn't necessarily have a very strong influence on the U.S. government, so I don't think a joint statement is most important," said Shi. "Maybe they [the U.S. and China] will launch some statements, but they can only play a very limited role, because the substantial points are not being solved, or even dealt with."
For Shi, Presidents Hu and Obama should take steps to improve Chinese public opinion toward the United States, which he said had soured in recent months. "Beginning last year, the Chinese public has had a bad opinion of the U.S.," he said. "The Chinese people feel that the U.S. has not treated China as a strategic power, it only sees China as a financial great power, who can lend money to the U.S."
Shi's comments seemed to clash with polls conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That poll found that 58 percent of Chinese had a favorable attitude toward the U.S., up from just 34 percent in 2007. Only 37 percent had an unfavorable view.
But Shi dismissed those numbers, saying "I don't think such polls are very accurate." Others agreed.
Li Mingjiang, an expert on China-U.S. ties at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the poll was conducted before two major events: the war of words last summer over the South China Sea, and huge U.S. military deployments near Chinese waters.
Those two developments were "alarming" for China, he said. "If you did another survey now, the 'favorable' opinion would probably decline quite a lot."
Last summer, Washington said that the United States had a "national interest" in resolving territorial claims in the South China Sea. That was a response to China's description of its claim over nearly all of the disputed South China Sea as a "core interest" on par with Taiwan and Tibet. It was the first time China had used that language. Later last year, the United States dispatched aircraft carriers and conducted massive military exercises near Chinese waters, in response to North Korea's provocations.
Li said China would likely press the United States for a statement of principles to stabilize bilateral relations. China was especially concerned about U.S. wooing of new "strategic partners" in Asia, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India, he said.
"China's decision-makers may have concluded that the U.S. is trying harder to encircle China," Li said. "Their concern is to forestall this from moving forward." He said China's wish-list included a U.S. statement that Washington would respect China's "core interests," but he thought that was unlikely to happen. "I doubt America would go that far."
Li also rejected any simple labels for the U.S. and China's hot-and-cold relations. "It's so complicated, there's really no single term or phrase to characterize this bilateral relationship," he said. "I use the term 'cooperative competitor.' There’s a lot of cooperation, a lot of collaboration, but also a lot of competition and rivalry."
The American public seems to agree. In Pew's polling last year, it found that 49 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, with just 36 percent having an unfavorable view. And in a new Pew poll released last week, most Americans said China was a "serious problem, but not an adversary." They said the U.S. military was far more powerful than China's.
But Americans wrongly dubbed China the world's top economic power (the U.S. economy is more than twice the size of China's), and called China the country representing the "greatest danger" to the United States (just ahead of North Korea).
In terms of priorities for policy toward China, Americans put "build a stronger relationship" at the top of their list, with "get tough with China on trade and economic issues" second. Human rights and environmental concerns were a distant third and fourth.
The wisdom of the American people seems to be saying: Keep your friends close, but your frenemies closer.