Broader focus to Sino-US ties will be welcome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am

When two new partners find themselves locked in a complex dance, mishaps are inevitable. It takes time for both sides to find their footing. This appears to be the case with Beijing and the new White House under Barack Obama. Sino-US relations are among the most complex and important bilateral ties in the world today. The new US president has got off to a rocky start. But he has now made an overture to mend fences with his counterpart Hu Jintao in their first telephone conversation on Friday.

The phone call covered a lot of ground and helped clear the air after US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's controversial remark about China being a currency manipulator. Even before Friday's call, Vice-President Joe Biden had distanced the White House from the remarks by saying the US had not reached a judgment on the issue.

The two presidents' conversation also covered North Korea, Iran and climate change. This is a welcome indication that both sides realise they must move beyond the narrow focus on trade under the presidency of George W. Bush. The US needs Beijing's help on those vital issues and more; and as a rising world power, China needs to go beyond concentrating on trade and the economy to accept increasingly global responsibilities. There is a need for both nations to engage each other in what US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called 'a comprehensive dialogue'. Mrs Clinton has signalled the State Department's new direction on China policy, which previously was dominated by Henry Paulson, Mr Geithner's predecessor. The two presidents sidestepped the currency issue, but Mr Geithner's controversial remarks may, paradoxically, signal the end of the US Treasury Department's exceptional influence over China policy.

Despite their pledge to co-operate, it is significant that the two sides presented different versions of what was actually said on Friday. Mr Hu, according to the official news agency, Xinhua, cited the importance of mutual respect, especially in relation to core national interests. He also repeated his opposition to trade protectionism. However, the White House said Mr Obama focused, during the conversation, on trade and economic imbalances that need to be addressed to solve the global financial crisis.

The difference in their statements reflects the two countries' conflicting views of what caused the financial meltdown. Speaking earlier at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, though without naming any country, Premier Wen Jiabao said blind adherence to profit and unregulated markets were responsible for the crisis. But American policymakers say the underlying cause of the crisis was the imbalance between China's trade surplus and excess savings on the one hand and excessive debt and deficits in the United States. There is probably much truth to both accounts. And China has an important role to play in reviving the world economy. In this, concerted action by the major economies is crucial.

The rise of China presents challenges and opportunities for the nation and the world. As its wealth grows, its global influence will necessarily increase. This has caused alarm in many capitals, but it need not be a threat. Sino-US ties will be key to managing China's rise. But they involve many parts; problems in one area, such as trade, should not be allowed to undermine the whole. Successful relations with the US will help China play a more positive and productive role in world affairs.