China-US ties: A working relationship between rivals

If the second term Bush administration has had one consistent message for China, it is that a country moving rapidly towards global superpower status has international obligations and responsibilities that cannot be shirked.

This is a polite way of saying: You may be the big new kid on the block — but don’t mess with us. In its responses to Washington, as seen during a recent visit to Beijing by Robert Zoellick, the deputy US secretary of state, China has demonstrated firmness but also pragmatism and a growing diplomatic subtlety. That will doubtless be on display again during President Hu Jintao’s upcoming US visit. China has been working closely with Washington in the so-called ‘six-party talks’ over North Korea. Its interest in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula, especially in terms of containing or eliminating Pyongyang’s supposed nuclear weapons capability, coincides with that of the US.

On issues, such as the diplomatic stand-off with Iran, China supported the US-driven decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council over its suspect nuclear activities. But it has made plain it would be reluctant to endorse punitive economic sanctions, let alone the use of force against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

China is even patching up relations with Japan, an old wartime adversary and close US ally. This week will see the highest level meeting between the two sides since relations deteriorated last October over a war shrines dispute. China’s practical approach to relations with the US and regional neighbours reflects its top current priority, which is domestic: to build the national economy and maintain annual growth rates of about 9 per cent. Projections published this month (FEB) in the China Modernisation Report 2006 revealed the extent of Beijing’s ambition. The report foresees the end of poverty by 2050 and a rapid rise in living standards and incomes. Yet another report, published this week, promised increased spending on schools, health care and agriculture in poor rural areas where there have been thousands of protests in recent years against Communist party corruption, land grabs and pollution.

China’s confident future image of itself is of a country that is one of the most advanced in the world, industrially, technologically and scientifically — and one that in due course, if it wishes, will be able to challenge the US hegemon. Until then, it is biding its time. For its part, the US is increasingly focusing on this longer-term challenge. Congressmen recently warned that China’s economy could out-perform the US by 2050. That may be one reason why President Bush has begun to stress the need to invest more in science, technology and education. The Pentagon has also concluded that China could one day challenge the US militarily. And as the US Treasury already knows only too well, America’s deficit-financed economy is already largely underwritten by Chinese capital.

Yet out of the blue, a single issue has suddenly exploded onto the US-China agenda, threatening to upset an otherwise carefully managed relationship. Cutting away the diplomatic flummery, it has exposed the sharp cultural differences between the two countries. The issue is censorship. Enormous exception has been taken in the US to revelations that leading internet service providers such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems have submitted to Chinese government-imposed restrictions on free speech and access to information — and have allegedly facilitated the surveillance and arrest of Chinese dissidents.

At a Congressional hearing last week, a string of politicians lamented a lack of fidelity to America’s long-protected tradition of free speech and stressed the incompatibility of free enterprise and ‘tyranny’. The companies pointed out that in order to do business in China, it was necessary to comply with Chinese regulations. But that defence only exasperated their critics and highlighted how relatively closed a society China, for all its economic vitality and dreams of future prosperity, still remains.

Yet greater US-China familiarity, and a developing working relationship, may be having an effect even in this sensitive area. A debate over censorship erupted in China itself. It was sparked by an unusual demarche by party elders who denounced the authorities’ closure of a popular anti-establishment magazine, Freezing Point, and railed against official curbs on the media. One of the elders was a former political secretary to Chairman Mao. A startled President Hu subsequently ordered that Freezing Point be allowed to reopen. And while strict controls remain, Chinese officials concede that they face an impossible task in trying to control all flows of information.

The censorship row exposed how different the US and Chinese societies are — and yet how much closer they may become. In that thought lies hope that these two giants of the 21st century are not inevitably doomed to confrontation. — The Guardian