WASHINGTON -- In the lead up to next week's US -China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), ties between the two countries remain solid, said former US Defense Secretary William Cohen in a recent interview with Xinhua.
"It's still on a very positive track at the executive level," the former Clinton administration official said of relations in recent months. "President Obama and his economic and security team are focused on building a better economic and security relationship with China."
Those statements came not long after a period of strained relations between the two countries, who were last year at odds over some issues such as US arms sales to Taiwan and the value of the Yuan or RMB. Washington wanted the Chinese currency to rise, for example, while Beijing maintained that a sharp rise would hurt China's economy, although China has allowed the currency to increase somewhat.
The relationship, however, was back on track in January when Chinese President Hu Jintao was welcomed to Washington in an official state visit and the two sides agreed to cooperate on a number of issues and declared their commitment to build a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.
Discussions of "becoming more of a consuming nation than an export nation, of developing the internal parts of China and building a consumer class, and focus on higher and higher technology, all of that is taking place in China," Cohen said.
"Hopefully that will translate into more opportunities for American companies and international companies to do business in China, because China will have a very large consuming class," he said.
But while the White House and Chinese leaders have emphasized cooperation, the US Congress could be on a different page, Cohen said.
"Congress may not be on the same path as the (Obama) administration in looking for these economic ties," he said.
"We are going to have a more challenging time in the next couple of years by virtue of the fact that China continues to grow at a significant pace ... and the United States economy has been flagging," he said.
"So the disparity between the growth pattern in China and the growth in the United States (could) become a political issue, and Congress, in turn, (could) look for ways to blame our economic troubles upon China, saying that (China) has manipulated their currency, that they are pursuing policies that are adverse to the United States," he said.
In that scenario, however, the US business community could step up in favor of better US-China ties.
"That's where the business community really comes into play, to say 'wait, there are issues where we are going to disagree ... but there are many more in which we can cooperate,'" he said.
But the possibility of Congress politicizing US-China relations is no foregone conclusion. Whatever happens in Congress, China may not become a central issue for US lawmakers in the next year or 18 months, as the United States places the majority of its focus on issues surrounding the US budget and deficit, he said.