We Need More Constructive U.S.-China Relations

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Fred Teng Senior media executive and a regular speaker and writer on U.S. China policy issues.

In recent weeks the U.S.-China relationship has been rocked by a number of geopolitical crises, some unforeseen and others a result of archaic policies that should no longer exist in our current political climate. During this critical time, President Obama should focus on building a constructive relationship with China, and not divert his attention from the end goal of building mutual understanding and trust. On the heels of the arms sales to Taiwan and at a time when we rely heavily on China's geopolitical clout in Iran and North Korea, if President Obama now invites the Dalai Lama to visit the White House, he will be instigating a potentially destructive downward spiral in relations.

There is no question that the United States-China relationship is the most vital bilateral relationship in the twenty first century. As economist C. Fred Bergsten noted in his letter to Foreign Affairs, "the United States and China are the world's two most important economies. The United States leads the high-income economies, and China leads the emerging-market economies. Each of these groups now accounts for half of global output. The United States and China are the two largest trading countries and the two largest polluters." So the real priorities for the U.S. should be to focus and engage China on trade balance, climate change, and our national debt.

Much of our news media is focused on China's newly assertive approach to its relationship with the United States; with most reporters asserting that the Chinese have become more difficult in their approach to bilateral relations. Furthermore, this increased boldness from China is largely attributed to their growing confidence following the global economic crisis, from which they were the one country that emerged stronger than before.

This perception is in many ways style over substance. From Beijing's perspective, its fundamental stance on important and sensitive policies have not changed. Taiwan and Tibet are consistently matters of national integrity and sovereignty. China's policy of non-intervention in domestic matters of foreign countries has always guided its stances on all nations, including Iran and North Korea. And China's necessity for economic growth has been the driving forces in China's policies for decades. Similarly, the importance of developing a positive and comprehensive China-US relationship remains unchanged.

As the United States attempts to navigate through this rocky terrain, it should also attempt to view its current agenda from Beijing's perspective. On Taiwan, the United States made a blunder by proceeding with an archaic and unacceptable weapons sale. For Chinese leaders, this is the worst offense, as they consider Taiwan part of China. In fact, the Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China.

On Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a tactical misstep by insisting that the Chinese sign on to economic sanctions. This shows a clear lack of understanding on China's policy on Iran -- China always prefers to use diplomatic means.

And now, when these precarious issues are in need of delicate diplomacy and high sensitivity, the announcement that President Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama will do little to curtail Beijing's ire and will likely further erode U.S.-China relations.

Acknowledging the sensitivities, President Obama has tried to downplay the significance of the visit, noting that the Dalai Lama will be welcomed solely as a "religious and cultural leader", not as a political one. Yet in China, the Dalai Lama's political ambitions are inseparable from his religious role. In addition to the Chinese government, the Chinese people are weary of the Dalai Lama because of this connection, as they are aware of what happened in Iran following the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like the Dalai Lama, Khomeini spent many years in exile and then returned to play a destructive political role in Iran. The Dalai Lama has previously claimed he is not seeking independence for Tibet,, then why would he also claim "Tibet is historically a separate country"?

Tibet has been part of China long before Hawaii was a state of the United States. The U.S. Congress passed the Public Law 103-150, otherwise known as the Apology Resolution, which apologized for the U.S. Government's role in supporting the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. However, Hawaii is still a solid part of the U.S. sovereignty. How would the U.S. government react if the government of China supported a leader of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement?

For its part, China is committed to resolving the Tibet matter internally, and this week convened with representatives of the Dalai Lama to discuss Tibet's status as an autonomous region from both sides' perspectives in an attempt to narrow down their differences. While progress is admittedly slow, it is a good sign that both parties are engaging, and that each side have left the door open for future dialogue. Additionally, China must increase its efforts to tell its story and make its argument to the world. It is vital that China engages the next generation of Americans to guard against continued misunderstanding and conflict.

For the time being, it is unwise to fete an exile leader and further offend the most important foreign partner of the United Sates. President Obama should spend more time engaging President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, to deal with important bilateral issues at hand. It is unwise to sidetrack U.S. foreign policy. We need more constructive U.S.-China relations, for the people of the U.S. and for the people of China.


Fred S. Teng is Chief Executive Officer of NewsChina magazine and President of the Chinese Community Relations Council.

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