Apart from the leaders who came to London to discuss prescriptions for global economic recovery, President Hu Jintao's Wednesday meeting with US counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit drew the most interest from people worldwide. The first-ever meeting between China's top leader and the newly elected US president was expected to map out guidelines for the future development of bilateral relations and start ties anew.
Messages transmitted from their meeting will to a certain extent serve as a wind vane for the orientation of ties between the emerging Asian power and the world's sole superpower.
The new US president considers Sino-US ties the most important bilateral relationship in the world. At the meeting, President Hu and US President Obama committed themselves to working hard to construct an active, cooperative and all-out relationship suited to the 21st century.
The two leaders have also agreed to set up the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue as a new channel to strengthen consultation and cooperation on issues of great significance.
Since taking office, the new US administration focused closely on developing ties with China. That is partly because the US, plagued by a once-in-a-century financial tsunami and consequent economic turbulence, needs an emerging China to solve thorny economic matters. Also, the deepened cooperation between two sides on counterterrorism, prevention of nuclear proliferation and regional security mean that either cannot do without the other.
The new US administration should not simply copy its predecessor's China policy in dealing with the Asian power. Despite enjoying a good start, Sino-US relations under Obama are still expected to face frictions and thus need a certain period for adjustment.
In a nomination hearing to the Congress, newly appointed US Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner unfairly accused China of currency manipulation.
In early March, the US surveillance vessel The Impeccable intruded deep into China's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, sparking a confrontation with China's ships. Self-restraint from both sides prevented an escalation. However, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, the US Pacific Commander, denounced China's legal maritime activities as "offensive and disgusting".
In his press briefings to journalists at home and abroad after the conclusion of this year's session of the National People's Congress (NPC), Premier Wen Jiabao expressed profound concern about China's formidable dollar-denominated assets in the US and asked the Obama administration to take measures to ensure their safety. The timely response from the White House aimed at reassuring China, however, did not stop the Treasury Department's large-scale buying back of US national debt on March 20. The move resulted in a drastic devaluation of the dollar, exacerbating concerns of other countries, including China, over the safety of their US assets.
Afterwards, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, called for the establishment of a new international reserve currency to replace the dollar, a proposal that has received a warm response from other world members and financial institutions. However, the dismissive attitudes of Obama, Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke indicate that such wholesale reform of the global financial system is still a major challenge.
In addition to bilateral issues, the latest tension on the Korean peninsula involving an alleged imminent missile launch by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has added to instability in Northeast Asia. It has also dimmed the prospects of the previously established multilateral coordination mechanism aimed at defusing the nuclear issue on the peninsula. On global warming, China and the US still disagree on some specifics, although they have agreed on the principles. In particular, they remain divergent on the standards of taxation on carbon emission.
As the world' largest and third largest economy respectively, a concerted action between the US and China will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in helping grapple with the global financial crisis. Economic or trade-related pressures placed by the US on China would possibly give rise to new trade disputes between the two and undercut the bilateral cooperation requisite to overcome the crisis.
In dealing with China, the Obama administration is still flanked by domestic political and bipartisan elements. The new president's nomination of a few department heads were rejected by Republicans in Congress. In fact, the new secretary of treasury still faces pressure to step down. Also, the Pentagon is likely to continue to serve as a force in checking the new administration's diplomatic strategy.
In their first meeting, President Hu and President Obama have displayed their political courage and wisdom to boost Sino-US relations. But the two countries should continue to strengthen contact and consultation and take viable measures to remove mutual misgivings.
In an increasingly interdependent world, strengthened bilateral cooperation between China and the US is not only badly needed for their own development, but also necessary to tackle a series of challenges, ranging from the global financial crisis and economic disturbance to global warming, terrorism, cross-border crimes and proliferation of weapons.
An active, cooperative and all-out Sino-US relationship will not only benefit the two countries, but also contribute to regional and world stability and garner greater development and prosperity.
The author is a researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
(China Daily 04/03/2009 page8)