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Advancing U.S.-China Relations


A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations outlines what it calls an "affirmative agenda" for the future of U.S. ties with China, which it calls the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. The report urges the U.S. government to have a consistent message about relations with China and to try harder to work with Beijing on issues of mutual interest.

The U.S.-China relationship is broad and multi-faceted. It encompasses such contentious issues as Beijing's poor human rights record and the huge and growing trade imbalance between China and the United States. At the same time, experts say the two countries have many issues of common interest they should pursue, including protecting the environment and utilizing global energy resources.

An independent task force of 30 experts on China, convened by the Council on Foreign Relations, has just issued a report that examines U.S.-China relations and points to what it thinks is the best way forward.

Former U.S. Trade Representative and task force Co-chair Carla Hills says the report notes stumbling blocks in relations, but is relatively upbeat about the future. "We looked at 35 years of change in China and we went back to the Mao era, when people could not choose their employment, could not choose where to live. And we noted the fantastic change," says Hills.

Trade is perhaps the most prominent area of contention between the two countries. The U.S. trade deficit with China reached a record 232-billion dollars last year and is expected to keep rising. Other economic issues include the piracy of patented and copyrighted materials in China, and the strong perception that Beijing is manipulating its currency to gain trade advantage.

In addition to these issues, Hills says that Washington has a host of other concerns about China that extend beyond economics. "Its [i.e., China's] increased influence abroad. There's a worry about how that impacts U.S. future leadership. The military buildup puts, some think, U.S. security at risk. And its human rights record is sub-par and that creates great anguish in some quarters," according to Hills.

At the same time, Hills says it is important to understand that Beijing also has concerns about the United States. "It [i.e., China] worries about its [i.e., the U.S.] outreach to Central Asia, believing that that is an effort to curtail China's growth, that its [i.e., U.S.] military deployment is seeking to encircle it [i.e, China], that its [i.e., U.S.] export control is aiming to deprive it [i.e., China] of necessary technology, and that our calls for democracy are really to foment domestic turmoil and interrupt its [i.e., China's] growth," says Hills.

Competing Interests

The report says China has tried to emphasize to the United States its core interests, which include Taiwan -- an independently governed island Beijing considers part of Chinese territory. China has vowed to use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. The United States has promised to help Taiwan defend itself against attack by mainland China.

The task force urges Washington to make its core interests clear to Beijing because it says, "China's track record suggests that when it understands that something is vital to the United States, it is more likely to be responsive to American concerns." The report also approvingly notes signs of closer relations between the two countries, such as last year's meeting in Washington between their leaders.

"The United States and China are two nations divided by a vast ocean, yet connected through a global economy that has created opportunity for both our peoples," said President Bush, welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House one year ago. "Our two nations share many strategic interests. President Hu and I will discuss how to advance those interests, and how China and the United States can cooperate responsibly with other nations to address common challenges," said President Bush.

The Chinese side also applauded the meeting. "President Hu's successful visit to the United States last April deserves special mentioning," said Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong. Speaking last month, he said the two presidents reached agreement on what he termed a "constructive and cooperative" partnership into the 21st century. The two leaders, he added, have had numerous contacts since their Washington meeting. "President Hu Jintao and President Bush had three meetings and quite a few telephone conversations, and wrote to each other many times last year," says Zhou.

Areas of Cooperation

In recent years, the two countries have also worked together in an attempt to resolve several international issues, including the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region and the effort to persuade North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear programs. And Zhou says the two countries are working together in other areas. "We are also expanding our cooperation on energy, environmental protection and disease control -- issues that are of vital importance to the peace and well-being of mankind," says Zhou.

Carla Hills says these are among the areas where it is essential the two countries work together. "Think of it, the environment. If China sits out, no matter what we do, we're going to have a very sick environment. You think about global energy policy. If China doesn't play and doesn't come to the table, we will not have a good outcome," says Hills.

There are also security issues that should be discussed, according to retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who formerly headed the U.S. Pacific Command and was the task force's other co-chair. "We think that the area of space is one for dialogue, as we also mentioned nuclear arms, missiles. We think there should be far more dialogue than there is," says Blair.

The task force recommends that the U.S. president repeat often what it called a "clearer and more consistent statement of U.S. policy goals, both to the people in China and to the people in the United States."

The report also urges the United States to work to integrate China into the international community, saying such a move could help better protect both U.S. and Chinese interests.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.