As a special envoy of Obama, on May 31, 2009 US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner began his first official visit to China since the President took office. How are China and the US going to conduct the new round of "strategic and economic dialogue"? And what are the new trends in Obama's China policies? These questions are hotly-debated issues.
What is to be discussed during Geithner's visit?
During past US visits to China, officials like former treasury head Henry Paulson usually focused their attention on the RMB exchange rate and the trade deficit. Will the new treasury head play the same old tune?
According to media reports, Geithner confirmed in interviews days ago that he would not follow the "complaint diplomacy" route. He reiterated that the U.S. will whole-heartedly promote all-round US-China relations. During his China visit he wants to discuss the global financial and economic situation with China and how to strengthen US-China cooperation in dealing with the ongoing financial crisis; he also wants an exchange of views with the Chinese side on the preparation of the first round of US-China strategic and economic dialogue to be held this summer.
However, Geithner's generous commitment did not fully ease the concerns of Chinese analysts. Zhou Shijian, a senior researcher at the Center of China-US Relations of Tsinghua University, believes that the main purpose of Geithner's visit is to persuade China to buy more US treasury bonds so as to ease the US lack of capital. The New York Times also claimed that China's future purchases of US bonds remains the top priority of Geithner's China visit.
According to Zhou, even if Geithner does not raise the RMB exchange rate issue, China will take the opportunity of his visit to address the problem of RMB appreciation. "China will resist any unreasonable US requirements, and set certain parameters so that the U.S. is no longer able to criticize China over the RMB exchange rate," said Zhou.
When asked the difference between the two US treasury heads, Zhou humorously compared Paulson to an "old fox" and Geithner to a "young mule". Compared with the sophisticated Paulson, Geithner is more frank and straight-talking.
US policy toward China softens
Another phenomenon under review is unexpected changes to the topics under discussion during the frequent visits to China by US officials.
Before Geithner's visit, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited China. Pelosi formerly would slam China on human rights problems. But this time a change of tone was apparent, and she shifted her attention to energy and climate change. Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also ceased to criticize China and instead expressed her gratitude to China for purchasing US treasury bonds. In US media reports on Geithner's China visit, the word "reassure" appeared very frequently. Analysts believe that Geithner will spend most of his visit reassuring China and playing it softly so as to encourage China to work with the U.S. in such fields as the US dollar, US debts, and Sino-US strategic ties.
Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, points out that the speeches and acts of senior US officials during their visits to China demonstrated their friendliness towards China. Such a change of attitude corresponds to President Obama's "smart power". Vice President Joe Biden's European tour was regarded as a listening tour; Clinton reopened the subject of US-Russia ties during her Russian visit; the U.S. has also extended the olive branch to Cuba and Iran. "It's clear that the alteration of US policy toward China is only one part of Obama's 'smart power'," Jin comments.
As to the reasons for such changes, Jin says the U.S. needs China's help to tide it over the financial crisis, and has also run into a series of setbacks in the war against terror, and on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues.
How are China and US to interact with each other?
According to Jin, the US abandonment of "complaint diplomacy" is only a change of style or a change of approach in reaching for the same diplomatic goal. But its final strategic objective will not change. For instance, whether to discuss the RMB exchange rate will only be determined by the evolving situation. But the ultimate US goal is to persuade China fully to open its financial markets. "The US wears a smile on the face it presents to China in order to encourage China to pay for its losses and share its responsibilities amidst the financial woe."
When talking about "responsibilities", Zhou Shijian says that China should clearly warn the U.S. that it must shoulder its international responsibilities as a major financial power. "The U.S. continually urges China to be a responsible country. But the Chinese government has to be responsible not only for the U.S., but for its own 1.3 billion people," remarks Zhou. While China has purchased large amounts of US treasury bonds, the US budget deficit has continued to rise: it soared to 455 billion US dollars in 2008 and is expected to hit an all time high of 1.8 trillion dollars in 2009, accounting for 13 percent of US GDP. China is justified in questioning the security of its holdings of US treasury bonds and what measures the US is going to take to guarantee the security of China's investment in the US.
"No longer complaining" will surely close some gaps in Sino-US relations. But more importantly the two sides should be candid with each other and respect each other's core interests and concerns. It is to be hoped that the Obama administration's changed policy toward China is not just a tactic of expediency in fighting the recession.
(China.org.cn translated by Zhang Ming'ai, June 1, 2009)