Last year, 2010, was a difficult one for US-China relations, with more public disagreements than agreements.
As China’s President Hu Jintao prepares to go to the United States, the focus will be on efforts to ensure that the two countries’ disagreements do not derail the overall relationship. Newspaper headlines this past year have been dominated by topics on which the two sides have differing, and sometimes opposing, positions.
Despite the friction, the two countries are committed to making the relationship work. This vision, as described a year ago by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, is still the guiding principle in U.S.-China relations.
“So, while the atmospherics might get challenging from time to time, we will hear commentary on both sides that speak to areas where we disagree - and we do disagree. I don’t think anyone will tell you otherwise,” he said. “The measure of the relationship will be whether we are able to put these differences on the sidelines.”
One source of disagreement is human rights. Chinese media alleged that the Nobel Peace Prize given to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was a deliberate insult to China orchestrated by Western countries such as the United States.
The U.S. government also is monitoring the case of Xue Feng, Chinese-American sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Goldberg was outside the courthouse for Xue’s appeal at the end of November.
“We made a formal request to attend Dr. Xue’s appeal hearing and provide him consular support consistent with the 1980 US-China Consular Convention," Goldberg states. "The Beijing High People’s Court denied this request, and they denied it without explanation.”
Washington and Beijing also have differing opinions on North Korea, which fired on a South Korean island in November, killing four people.
The United States has called on China to do more to rein in North Korea, its long-time ally. But Beijing has refrained from placing any blame on Pyongyang. China also criticized U.S. and South Korean military exercises in the region as increasing tensions.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei presented the Chinese position shortly after the November artillery attack.
Hong says China believes it is imperative to bring the issue back to the track of dialogue and negotiation as soon as possible.
Beijing has called on the six countries involved in North Korea nuclear disarmament discussions to come together to resolve the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Exchange rates and China’s trade surplus with the United States are issues that the two countries disagree. Many U.S. critics accuse China of maintaining an unfair trade advantage by keeping its currency artificially weak.
Experts say there are many reasons the two countries appear to have had more disagreements lately.
“Clearly, you see the [global] power transition, you know, China is rising and the U.S. is, to probably say it in relative terms, is in a relative decline. Therefore, this is the structural reason for a lot of things going on,” said Wang Dong, an associate professor of international relations at Peking University. “And secondly, the perception gap, which is also caused by the cultural differences between the two countries, then we also have the misperception and the nationalism in China, and also the domestic politics in both countries. I think we ought to take a wide range of different factors.”
Wang is among those who feel that with new global challenges, China and the United States share common goals and interests, and therefore - despite frequent disagreements - should find a way to work together.
Experts on the relationship say Mr. Hu’s visit to Washington this month is part of efforts to find common ground on some issues, and build understanding for each other’s positions where differences remain.
Also as part of efforts to improve relations, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has visited China.
SAIS Professor David Lampton
David Lampton is Director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He says China often curtails military relations to express its anger at disputes with the United States, and that has increased U.S. concerns about Beijing’s defense plans.
"And I think they’ve [the Chinese] become, in my view, alarmed at the degree of mistrust of China’s strategic intentions, and I think there’s some serious consideration being given that we can’t continue to play this tit-for-tat kind of game, holding military relations, exchanges, hostage every time we [the United States] do something,” Lampton said. “So, I think Gates coming here may be the beginning of a process in which we have a somewhat more durable military to military relationship, and I think that’s a good thing.”
However, on the first day of Gates visit, Chinese defense officials brushed off his proposal for a strategic dialogue in which the two countries could try to improve understanding of their defense policies.