US takes welcome step to boost China ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2010, 12:00am

China has long been sending officials to the US and other countries to widen their experience and understanding. Now some of their American counterparts have reciprocated, spending a week in Beijing coming to grips with the complications of Chinese governance, culture and society. Although it seems like an extremely short period, it is clearly a move with the potential to improve what is often described as the world's most important diplomatic relationship. Strong mutual ties are grounded in a willingness to learn, appreciate and communicate.

That inability has been on show countless times since diplomatic relations were restored in 1972. Ties have never been on an even keel, with long-standing differences preventing trust and genuine co-operation. The growth of China's economy and influence has heightened tensions, at times to worrying levels. Sending officials on training courses to the US has helped China develop and more reliably comprehend American ways; it is good that a reverse flow of knowledge is now taking place.

The 17-member US group included senior officers from the Defence Department, national space agency, Food and Drug Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their course at Beijing's Tsinghua University involved discussions with top Chinese analysts on a wide range of issues, from Communist Party politics to energy and environmental policies to the government's international strategies. Terms like 'harmonious society', 'scientific outlook on development' and 'five-year plan' are frequently spoken of on the mainland, but are little understood by most foreigners. They learned about these and more.

More than 40,000 Chinese officials have taken overseas training courses since the 1980s, mostly in the US, Singapore, Britain and Germany. The inspiration was former leader Deng Xiaoping's proposal to 'introduce foreign administration to facilitate the four modernisations', but early forays were more about symbolic shows of opening to the outside world than learning. That has changed in the past decade, with top central and provincial government officers exposed to outside administrative and business practices and learning how the government in their host country operates. The aim is to gain insight into how a nation thinks and responds.

Certainly this would have been useful for the US during negotiations for a new climate change treaty in Copenhagen in December. Had US President Barack Obama and his team better understood China's position and circumstances, they would have known that there was no chance of Beijing agreeing to cap its carbon emissions in a way that the West preferred. Disillusioned, Obama went home with little to show for his effort and soured relations with China. Ties dropped to new lows when he announced arms sales to Taiwan and met Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The chill has been taken out only with a concerted effort to tone down the noise through high-level delegations, most notably two weeks ago when President Hu Jintao met Obama. Matters would have been considerably different had levels of understanding been greater. There are many China experts in the US but Washington has rightly decided that more needs to be done. US officials sent to take part in these programmes will gain invaluable knowledge and have eye-opening experiences. At home, they will be less blinkered in their views of the mainland. Their interaction with Chinese counterparts will be beneficial for both sides. Prospects for co-operation will be enhanced and the chance of misunderstanding minimised.