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How to Mend U.S.-China Ties

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
February 15, 2012

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China's Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States is being closely watched by policymakers to gain insight into China's likely future leader ahead of the transition beginning later this year. His remarks on the first day of meetings February 14 "did not differ in any substantial way from remarks made by previous Chinese leaders," says CFR's Elizabeth C. Economy, who met him at the lunch hosted by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. This is not surprising, she says, since "Xi's job was not to break new ground, but to prevent any political catastrophe from ruining his succession prospects." Xi's visit comes amid tensions between the two countries over trade, Syria, and Iran. Economy says "the number one priority in U.S. policy toward China should be working to address the trust deficit while ensuring that we remain deeply engaged with our allies." For this, both have to first get their own houses in order, adds Economy: The United States must fix its economy and China needs to undertake "meaningful, political reform."

How significant is Xi's visit to the United States and what are the two sides looking for during this trip?

For the United States, Xi's visit is an opportunity to assess the likely next president of China. What will be his priorities and political values? What type of negotiator is he likely to be? What new challenges or opportunities might he present after ten years of [President] Hu Jintao? It also offered the White House the chance to lay out the U.S. perspective on the bilateral relationship and its concerns and interests.

For China, it was a chance to test and hopefully show off the leadership potential of the likely next president of the country. It also offered Xi the opportunity to "negotiate" when the stakes are still relatively low.

Xi's job was not to break new ground, but to prevent any political catastrophe from ruining his succession prospects.

Did you get any indication that he might approach things differently than President Hu Jintao or his policies may be any different?

Xi's remarks did not differ in any substantial way from remarks made by previous Chinese leaders. He talked about the desirability of cooperation and consensus between the United States and China and the growing importance of the relationship, but certainly broke no new ground on issues such as human rights and trade. He was careful to couch his address in traditional terms--China is the largest developing economy and the United States is the largest developed economy--and to reference the leadership of Presidents Hu Jintao and Obama in setting the pace for the bilateral relationship.

What's your readout on how the White House, the State Department, and U.S. businesses perceive him in the United States?

Vice President Biden, while gracious at the outset of his remarks during the lunch when discussing his own trip to China last summer, quickly segued into a recitation of the challenges the U.S.-China bilateral relationship faces. His remarks suggested that the talks that the administration had with Xi in the morning were candid, possibly even challenging, and did not break any new ground. This, however, is not surprising. Xi's job was not to break new ground, but to prevent any political catastrophe from ruining his succession prospects.

How would you rate the last ten years of U.S.-China ties with President Hu Jintao at the helm?

Over the past ten years, the range of issues with which the United States and China must contend has expanded dramatically. However, the actual level of cooperation has not kept pace. Both China and the United States are committed to a stable and peaceful relationship, but it is characterized above all by friction, uncertainty, and mistrust.

Last week, the Chinese vice foreign minister said something similar--that there was a "trust deficit" between the United States and China. How do you think the two countries should work on gaining mutual trust?

There are a number of steps both China and the United States should pursue. Above all, the two sides need clarity of intent, predictability, shared foreign policy values and priorities, and mutual respect. These are the elements of trust, without which the relationship will continue to founder.

To make progress in addressing the trust deficit, however, both sides will need to take significant action on the home front--for the United States, this means getting its economic house in order and practicing what it preaches. For the Chinese side, this means significant and meaningful political reform.

Both China and the United States are committed to a stable and peaceful relationship, but it is characterized above all by friction, uncertainty, and mistrust.

What should be the number one priority in U.S. policy toward China?

The number one priority in U.S. policy toward China should be working to address the trust deficit while ensuring that we remain deeply engaged with our allies. Striking the appropriate balance between engagement and hedging should be the essence of our China policy.

This sounds like what the United States is trying to do now, without much success. Where is the strategy failing and what should they be doing differently?

U.S. policy toward China is largely on the right track. The administration is learning how to work with China, around China, and even, when necessary, against China in multilateral fora with U.S. allies. It is a flexible policy that allows the United States to pursue its interests while recognizing that on different issues, different strategies will be necessary to ensure an optimal outcome.

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