Change brings renewed hope for Sino-US ties

By James DeShaw Rae
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, December 23, 2012
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The end of 2012 brought transitions to both China and the United States. In the case of America, President Obama was re-elected, though he is likely to choose a new secretary of state, secretary of defense, and a new director of central intelligence. These changes could result in a shift in foreign policy; at a minimum, the president's ear will be receiving policy advice in new tones.

James DeShaw Rae [Li Shen/]

Meanwhile, China has undergone a more thorough transition after the 18th Party Congress, with the arrival of new General Secretary Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, and a host of new faces in the Party, the State Council, and indeed in the leadership of the PLA. Many outside China are anxious to see how China's foreign policy may be affected by this transition.

Sino-U.S. relations have been on a consistent and improving trajectory for forty years and I do not expect that pathway to change in any dramatic way in the coming years of President Obama's or General Secretary Xi's terms of office. In fact, this is now the most important bilateral relationship for both countries, and indeed for the world. Of course, many factors could undermine this hard-earned stability, from economic competition, diplomatic rows, and strategic rivalry, to public misunderstandings and elite distrust.

Luckily, the glue that maintains this relationship has been solidifying for a long time, and is built on fundamental cultural and historical ties, ever more frequent and positive diplomatic bonds, and most importantly, deep economic interdependence. Both countries should seek out new ways to enhance cooperation and ensure that the relationship always remains vital, constructive, and peaceful.

First, historic and cultural friendship is a hallmark of Sino-U.S. relations, but one that is often overlooked in ideological disputes. The new leadership could emphasize the many positive historic aspects of U.S.-China relations. Certainly, the special place of Sun Yat-sen in China's revolutionary history may not have occurred without some special years spent in Hawaii. Likewise, on a recent visit to the Stillwell Museum in Chongqing, I was struck by the deep record of the special role that the United States played in alliance with the CPC and Kuomintang in that city, elsewhere in Yunnan, and even briefly in Yan'an. Americans could be more deeply educated on this memorable moment that binds the two countries. Since American money funded the museum, it also reflects the type of joint partnerships that help improve mutual understanding. I hope more Chinese visitors take the opportunity to visit the small hillside villa where General Stillwell offered counsel on strategic planning against Japan during World War II.

Educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges also allow people to directly experience each other's society. Programs like the American Fulbright scholar exchange and China's new Hanban (Confucius Institutes) will not simply improve linguistic and cultural ties but will create a favorable environment to reduce political tensions and prepare the public to better accept occasional diplomatic conflicts.

Second, dialogue and diplomatic contact at the highest levels has become regular, normalized, and increasingly cooperative. Finding agreeable plans to address global threats from the financial crisis, global terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, or piracy have led to shared solutions or commitments to work together. Greater opportunities for military-military exchanges would assuage mutual concerns over defense budgets and ambitions, and might alter the current calculation of an 'assertive' China and the defensive posture of the American 'pivot' to Asia.

Moreover, public diplomacy has long been a tool in America's foreign policy kit. Secretary Clinton status as a female world leader along with President Obama's unique personal story was an attractive element for an American reputation largely in tatters after destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not since Deng Xiaoping has a Western audience seen a Chinese political leader that has demonstrated a dynamic personality that General Secretary Xi seems to represent. His 2012 visit to Iowa where he had experienced an exchange program in 1985 and attendance at an L.A. Lakers NBA basketball game along with his official meetings was a fantastic choice that hopefully he chooses to repeat on subsequent trips. Likewise, his talented wife is an asset that will hopefully return to the public eye.

Finally, and most importantly, the two largest economies in the world also happen to be deeply and inextricably intertwined. Foreign investment, trade, and current accounts balances link the two, stimulus spending, Eurozone debt, and interest rates require joint planning and consideration. Secretary Clinton has suggested China should be a 'stakeholder' in the international system, and play a greater role at the United Nations, and by extension, it would be beneficial for everyone if China accepts a greater status and becomes a larger donor at other international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The future of U.S.-China relations is uncertain, but there is cause for optimism.

The author is Associate Professor of Department of Government o f California State University, Sacramento. He is the Fulbright Scholar (2011-2012) to China Foreign Affairs University.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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