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Sino-U.S. Relations: A Marriage of Convenience?

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama asserted that the United States remains “the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth.” No matter how powerful a nation is, however, its priorities still need to be rearranged and sometimes compromised, especially when dealing with key allies and partners. This much was evident by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to China. On her first overseas tour, Clinton insisted that differences with China over human rights, Taiwan and Tibet should not interfere with attempts to reach consensus on broader issues. “It is in our view imperative that the United States and China co-operate on a range of issues from the economy to global climate change to development and so much else,” Clinton said.

China is not only a major global economic power but a significant source of financial support for the U.S. The PRC is now the key holder of U.S. treasury notes valued at approximately $700 billion. It is hoped that China’s continued investment in U.S. treasury securities will help finance the bailout of failing U.S. banks and pay for the $787 billion U.S. stimulus package. China will also become a significant contributor to an emergency multilateral fund of $120 billion proposed by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is hoped that final agreement on the fund, which will enable Asian nations to borrow foreign currency on a short-term basis, will be reached in May.

While talks on the economy revolved around cooperative strategies to tackle the financial crisis and reject protectionism, China is also indispensable in getting Six-Party Talks (involving the U.S., China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia) on Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament back on track. Since the Korean War (1950-1953), in which Communist China aided North Korea, China has become a key influence on the hard-line North Korean rulers to end their nuclear ambitions. Today, China is North Korea’s most important political ally, biggest trading partner and main source of food, arms and fuel.

Human rights issues could not be ignored, but the extent of America’s “monitoring” of such matters in the midst of more pressing economic concerns was severely limited. Clinton attended a church service at the government-approved Haidian Church and met with Chinese civil society leaders, academics, NGO leaders, journalists and entrepreneurs, all of whom were carefully chosen by Beijing. The Secretary of State ended her official engagements by taking part in a web chat with the China Daily, the government’s main English-language newspaper.

Despite continuing political differences, the U.S. and the PRC have reached a mutual agreement. Where they disagree, they agree to differ. Methods of asserting each other’s fundamental beliefs ranging from U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan and the PRC’s censorship of media and Internet sites on matters Beijing considers sensitive should not interfere with attempts to reach consensus on more pressing issues. Borrowing from President Obama, the U.S. and the PRC gather because they have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. At least for the time being.

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Jessica Hun

Jessica Hun is a graduate of University of Oxford and University of Pennsylvania who is trained in law and politics. Her special interests are contemporary Chinese politics, developments in intellectual property law and property rights and international relations, especially in regard to China.

Area of Focus
Womens Issues; Gender Relations; China