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Why U.S.-China Relations Will Get Tougher

Author: Evan A. Feigenbaum
February 7, 2011
Business Standard


Should Indians care about America's strategic choices with China? You bet, especially since so many perceived a tilt unfavourable to India during US President Obama's first two years in office.

What a difference two years makes. The US and China are deeply interdependent, with trade in goods reaching a whopping $366 billion in 2009. Yet, a growing number of stakeholders on both sides find that reality deeply disquieting.

Structural changes are afoot that are sure to make the next several years more difficult. Even when the two sides share interests, divergent threat assessments and countervailing interests too often obstruct efforts to fashion complementary policies.

It is instructive, in that light, to take a hard look at President Hu Jintao's just-concluded visit to Washington. The visit cleared the air in some areas while yielding symbolic initiatives in others. Hu received 21 cannon shots on the White House south lawn. And his visit yielded $45 billion in new commercial deals — a striking contrast, perhaps, with the important (but rather less hefty) $10 billion touted during Obama's November visit to India.

Yet the central challenges in US-China relations are increasingly structural. For one, many, both in and out of China's government, want to test what Beijing's growing weight might yield. They are confident of China's growing strength and relish the opportunity to, at minimum, make Washington work harder for China's support of ostensibly shared objectives. Some wish to see whether and how Washington will accommodate a wider array of Chinese interests.

For their part, many in Washington have been chastened by China's choices of the past year. Beijing has proved less accommodating than many in the Obama administration had hoped of US preferences on issues from climate, to the pace of renminbi appreciation, to coordinated action in response to North Korean provocations. There were successes — for example, mutual support for Iran-related sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. But China's deliberate, self-interested approach did not mesh in many areas with American exhortations and expectations.

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