Barack Obama

Valentine's Day date is unlikely to alter the Sino-US collision course

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am


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The China Daily claimed that the visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping to the US next week will help to set relations between the two powers on a better track, and cited 'experts' who expressed the hope that the visit 'will help China-US ties fly clear of US election year turbulence'.

Xi will meet President Barack Obama in the White House on Tuesday, St Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, neither the US nor Chinese leaders have the luxury for political lovers' trysts. The best hope is that Obama and China's leader-in-waiting will realise some personal chemistry and understand that they must take their countries away from their impending collision course. And then pray that Americans are wise enough not to elect a Republican as president in November.

It is not merely that the timing is awkward and militates against a constructive outcome. There is something wrong with the political structures in both countries and in the international system, such as it is, that wastes so much time, money and energy on such meetings, but handicaps them so that they cannot achieve results.

The China Daily correctly outlines some of the problems on the American side of the relationship, noting that 'China bashing is becoming ever more frequent in this election year'. Obama used his state-of-the-union address to single out China for alleged unfair trade practices and, even before that, had angered Beijing by his demarches in defence policy with plans for a beefed-up presence in Asia.

The newspaper also understands that, if Obama makes life tough for China, the Republicans would probably be worse. Mitt Romney, still the Republican front runner, has 'pledged to 'clamp down' on Beijing as a currency manipulator and has openly threatened a trade war', the China Daily adds. China's deputy foreign minister Cui Tiankai correctly remarked this week that there is a 'trust deficit' between the two countries.

The China Daily conveniently forgets that the faults are not all on the American side. There are the long-standing controversial issues such as Beijing's manipulation of the renminbi, theft of intellectual property and industrial espionage, support for North Korea and shelter for Pyongyang's and Tehran's nuclear programmes, its defence of rogue regimes and domestic crackdown on dissent. On top of all that, China has recently become more protective of its rights as a great civilisation and a great power.

Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy dictum to 'keep a low profile and achieve something' was quietly modified in 2009 by President Hu Jintao. At the end of December - according to M.Taylor Fravel of MIT - General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, made a speech reported in the official paper of the PLA giving the reformulated version that China should 'uphold keeping a low profile and actively achieve something', a subtle but important change in the wording. It is an important underpinning for Beijing's more muscular foreign policy.

Assertive academics and businessmen, who believe China should not be kicked around or allow the West to dictate the terms of the diplomatic, political or economic debate, have raised the low profile. Hu himself has complained that 'international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration'.

Chinese commentators complain that Obama's renewed assertion that the US is a Pacific power and switch of defence capabilities to the Asia-Pacific region are part of a plot to encircle China and the opening shots of a new cold war.

All this means China and the US are on a potential collision course, even without Beijing joining Russia in a veto to prevent UN measures against the pariah regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The red rag before Beijing was clearly the suggestion of regime change in Damascus, even though that was deleted from the final watered-down resolution that failed because of the vetoes.

The veto was a sign of things to come. A more assertive China with growing worldwide interests will have to consider fully fledged military bases to protect the supply and passage of its own trade and the safety of its people working abroad.

Cui claimed the Sino-US relationship is 'too big to fail'; but now is not an easy time to fix it. Who knows whether Obama will be in the White House next year? Romney has promised to 'insist on a military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it'.

China itself is in an election year. Although Xi is president-in-waiting, there is still unsettled business, including the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee, with disputes still active, as can be seen in this week's events in Chongqing .

Xi has a reputation of being more open and affable than the apparatchik Hu, but China's new fifth generation leaders will probably be consensus-driven, especially given the tensions between the elitists or 'princelings' and the populists. In 2009, in Mexico, Xi was goaded to complain about 'a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country ... China does not export revolution, hunger or poverty; nor does China cause you any headaches. What else do you want?'

May you live in interesting times: Obama and Xi will want to remember those words.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator