Barack Obama

US-China relations must be put on better footing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 April, 2010, 12:00am

For two nations whose ability to get along with one another matters to the whole world, China and the United States have stretched the relationship of late. Even close friends can fall out from time to time, but it is a worry that relations between Beijing and Washington still go into reverse so quickly over such long-standing issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and China's alleged currency manipulation. That does nothing to tackle a range of problems of core significance to the world which cannot be resolved without their close co-operation.

Beneath the surface, it seems, the worry has also exercised some high-level minds in both places. Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama have talked things over for an hour on the phone. China has finally accepted an invitation that could have prompted a damaging snub to the White House. Hu himself, and not a lesser official, will soon be packing his bags to attend a nuclear security summit in Washington. The US has delayed for three months a report that might have declared China a currency manipulator and opened the way for retaliatory trade tariffs, risking a trade war and global economic collapse. Signals have come from Beijing that it is preparing to relax the peg of the yuan exchange rate to the dollar. The tone of the rhetoric has softened and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is due in Beijing for talks today.

Good sense has prevailed, but not without misgivings on both sides. There remain those in Beijing who feel Washington has got off lightly for insensitivity to Chinese feelings about Tibet and Taiwan, and for US politicians who put local agendas ahead of the national interest. Hopefully the latest developments signal a more mature approach from both sides.

Obama assumed office at the height of the financial crisis - a defining time for the interdependence of China and the US. China rode it out while maintaining enviable growth rates and the world looked east for leadership in the global recovery. It asserted its place as an equal on the world stage, no longer to be talked down to about trade imbalances, human rights and currency policy.

Officials managed Obama's trip to China last year to contain the domestic and international impact that was expected to enhance his prestige as a champion of free trade and human rights. Then followed the world climate summit in Copenhagen, where Obama apparently resented a perceived snub by Premier Wen Jiabao .

Despite its anger at American arms sales to Taiwan and Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, Beijing has rightly decided it is time to tweak its approach. Washington has responded, as evidenced by the rapid sequence of reciprocal gestures. Hu's trip to the nuclear summit and, more importantly, bilateral talks on the sidelines with Obama, are therefore welcome. The importance of good Sino-US relations cannot be exaggerated. Without active co-operation between the two powers not much progress can be achieved on issues that affect the future of mankind, among them free trade, security, the environment and nuclear proliferation.

That said, recent events show they still have a lot of work to do to cement their ties. The delay of the US currency report until well after the nuclear security summit, apparently to remove an obstacle to Hu's trip, is a case in point. It has to be a concern that mature discourse and relations between two long-established powers have to be contrived with such transparent expediency. The relationship must be put on a sounder footing if it is to inspire confidence in the resolve of both sides to pursue long-term mutual interests.