Port in a storm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2010, 12:00am

As it steamed out of Hong Kong into the sea mists of spring at the weekend, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier loomed large as a symbol of the ever-more complex Sino-US relationship. First, its visit represented the delicate diplomatic theatre that helps keep ties stable. Relations between Beijing and Washington may be encountering a rocky patch at present but the Nimitz visit revealed a touch of quiet compromise. Beijing may have scuppered military exchanges in its orchestrated rage at the latest US arms sale to Taiwan, but still let the ship visit, even if it refused to dignify it with any niceties as host. It was a sign, maybe, that Beijing understood that Washington had not given Taipei everything it asked for, and had kept it fully informed all the way through.

More broadly, the Nimitz could also be seen as a reminder that whatever tensions and rancour might be bedevilling internal US politics, US naval ships still come and go, irrespective of whomever is in the White House or dominating the US Congress. And that is a very timely reminder, indeed.

From the outside, it is easy to look in horror at the state of Washington. Rather than bringing change to the US capital, President Barack Obama's opening efforts have only further highlighted the bitter divide now poisoning relations between Republicans and Democrats. The sense of political renewal offered by Obama's election is withering on the vine.

Periods of venality and viciousness are nothing new in US politics, but this time around partisans find themselves wallowing in ghettos of hatred across cable networks and the blogosphere. Moderate voices struggle to rise above the mob as extremists forge overnight followings. As Peter Beinart, a political scientist at the City University of New York, notes in the latest issue of Time magazine, these are places 'where you can go years without hearing the other side make its case'.

So far, though, Sino-US relations are not part of the blood- letting. Anyone eyeing regional stability is left to hope it stays that way. The marked bipartisan cast to Washington's approach to Beijing - and beyond that, to East Asian security more generally - has been strengthening for some years now. Rhetoric may sharpen around election time - something long understood on both sides of the Pacific - but, once settled in office, US presidents and their administrations see the big picture. The growing sense of interdependence is keenly felt from the Oval Office.

Young Democrat presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, for example, may have railed against the 'Butchers of Beijing' as he eyed the White House, but he took economic and diplomatic engagement to new levels once in office. His Republican replacement, George W. Bush, stared down hawks in his own cabinet to demand fresh efforts to forge a military relationship with Beijing after the crisis over the crash landing of a US spy plane on Hainan island in 2001.

In fact, virtually every president has left office with relations with Beijing securely broadened and deepened since Republican cold warrior Richard Nixon's historic mission to Beijing in 1972.

As solid as it seems, that quiet sense of bipartisanship should never be seen as a given, however. It needs constant care and attention.

Threats to the status quo come not from issues such as Taiwan arms sales and White House visits by the Dalai Lama - events entirely manageable, and managed, by both sides - but from the truly spontaneous, horrifying crisis. A sudden escalation in tensions over Taiwan, a military accident or miscalculation, or a dramatic domestic crackdown in China could all serve to test not just the relationship between the two capitals, but the response and pressures from a poisonous and partisan US political arena where divisions are reaching historic levels.

The steel hulk of the 38-year-old Nimitz may represent the strategic assumptions that have governed East Asia for decades, but the future challenges posed by a rising China mean that it now must sail into a darker horizon.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent