Sino-US ties on 'fastest track' under Obama

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am

The speed with which Sino-US ties have been put on track and elevated to a higher level under the new administration is unprecedented and largely due to deepening global financial turmoil and fast-changing geopolitics, analysts say.

When a new president arrives in the White House, relations normally get off to a troubled start before gradually normalising - a phenomenon foreign affairs experts have called 'the learning-curve period'.

George W. Bush, for instance, labelled China as America's 'strategic competitor' when he came to power eight years ago. Relations gradually improved further into his presidency.

Beijing initially had misgivings about President Barack Obama. Some believed his administration might press China on human rights issues and be hostile to a communist-ruled country.

Concerns were also raised when newly-nominated US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner said last month that 'President Obama believes that China is manipulating its currency'.

Some saw this as a hint of a hardline approach in Washington's foreign policy towards Beijing.

But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left on Sunday, many in Beijing were relieved and encouraged by her willingness to co-operate and work with Beijing.

China Daily published an enthusiastic editorial, saying her visit - part of her first official overseas trip that also took in Japan, Indonesia and South Korea - had been reassuring.

'Many had waited anxiously for the new administration's China overtures, wondering if the precious signs of stabilisation in bilateral ties at the end of the Bush years could survive the new White House resident's ambitions for change,' it said. 'With Clinton in town highlighting common concerns, they finally received the much sought-after relief.'

Independent analysts were surprised at the 'unprecedented speed' with which the new administration had managed to establish a cordial working relationship with Beijing.

'It is unprecedented that the relationship between the two could be set on an agreed agenda just one month after a new US president has taken office,' said Richard Hu, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in Sino-US relations.

Tao Wenzhao, a Sino-US affairs expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, said: 'It is a very positive start, which has seen the elevation of ties between the two countries in such a short time.'

During Mrs Clinton's visit, Washington and Beijing not only agreed to continue previous dialogues, but also on the need to elevate such encounters to a higher level, pushing relations to parallel those between Washington and Tokyo, the closest US ally in the region.

Professor Hu said the previous strategic economic dialogue of economic ministers might be expanded to include ministers of defence and foreign affairs, like the US-Japan annual talks on diplomacy and security.

The teams once headed by former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan might be elevated to be headed by Vice-President Joe Biden and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The visit also ended with what Professor Hu described as 'agenda setting' as both sides laid out a vision for relations that prioritises co-operation on the financial crisis, global warming and regional security.

'The visit has set the three issues as top of the agenda of Sino-US relations during Obama's four-year tenure,' Professor Hu said.

Professor Tao said the sudden improvement in ties was a result of a shifting balance of power between the two giants as Mr Obama understood that America's relationship with Beijing was crucial to his goal of tackling the global economic crisis and other regional and international issues.

He said Beijing's financing of US consumer and government spending with US$1.9 trillion in foreign currency reserves was crucial to America's battle to tackle the financial turmoil, which was why Mrs Clinton appealed to Beijing to continue buying US treasury bills.