What kind of a relationship do China and the US have? The oddity of China-US ties is getting increasingly amusing. After every exchange of high-level officials, commentators in one country or the other cry "failure", complaining that their leaders have not won enough points.
This is exactly like the reaction of parents watching their kids in some non-competitive situations such as the beginning of a new school year or a Halloween party. They still see in it a competition, saying things like: "You should have given a broader smile to the school teacher," or "I'll buy you a funnier costume next year."
So after Barack Obama's China visit, some Americans see their president as returning home without a concrete Chinese assurance on currency and human rights. Chinese commentators, on the other hand, see their leaders not being able to extract an assurance from Obama on the dollar's value, withdrawal of support to separatists and stoppage of weapon sales to Taiwan. Some opinions are even more radical, like the ones that China or the US has compromised on its national interests and succumbed under the pressure of an old enemy.
Experts on both sides must be devising ways to circumvent such embarrassment. And they could even be thinking of changing the existing diplomatic formula by canceling the mutual visits by the top leaders in person and letting the two presidents sign joint documents by exchanging their thoughts and opinions through email.
The two countries' relationship is indeed complicated because of the legacy they share, from the past ideological divide to interference in domestic politics. The old problems are the hardest to solve, as is usually the case. A pragmatic approach would be to leave such problems on the backburner and create opportunities for progress in some other areas and concentrate on doing the doable good things.
Such an approach is called incremental reform - applicable especially to State-owned enterprises (SOEs) - meaning a more rapid reform in the growing part of the economy, such as new industries and services, and maybe some less difficult areas of the old industries and old services.
Given some time, if we are lucky and don't commit mistakes, the new industries and new services will become strong enough to push the old problems to the periphery of the economy - where they have a chance to simply dissolve. This doesn't work at times when there is mismanagement. But at least, the old problems are isolated and cannot stand in the middle of the way.
It looks as if we are having another incremental reform - one in China-US relations. There are enough new things that the two countries can do, and indeed are expected to do by the rest of the world. They should work together to isolate their old problems in such a way that they do not block the progress in their new enterprises. This is not to shy away from the old problems. Instead, it could be the most practical way to deal with them at the least cost.
The two countries would make a much bigger mistake if they didn't start working together immediately on emission control, building common trade standards, pioneering new technologies and more resource-efficient industries and lifestyles, and helping the international community in more meaningful ways. Neither country's "core value" can overrule these basic needs of humankind.
There will always be criticisms. There are still some people in China who say the SOEs' reform is a failure, a fire sale of public assets, a source of corruption and a betrayal of socialism, even though the country has rebuilt some world-level investment funds and industrial companies.
So as people keep talking about China-US relations, we can see that being locked in a symbiotic spar can be quite tiring, if not annoying, at times. And one annoyance will never go away - that of the vastly contradictory criticisms from both societies over the same issues.
Let's just live with it.
(China Daily 11/24/2009 page9)