2010 may be only three months old, but we’ve already gone through enough China-US bilateral relations melodrama to last us at least one year. Early on, as the Obama Administration decided to complete an arms sale to Taiwan as well as meet the Dalai Lama in the White House, Sino-American ties appeared to be at their lowest point in years, a problem for which the Google flap proved most unhelpful. The tension led observers in both countries to wonder whether President Obama had the chops to deal with what is arguably Washington’s most significant bilateral relationship.
Now as the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the arrival of spring, relations between the two powers have correspondingly begun to thaw. China has finally agreed to enter into negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program after months of indecision. President Hu Jintao has decided to attend a nuclear summit in Washington later this month. The US has responded by delaying a judgment on whether or not China manipulates its currency, a move surely intended as a gesture of goodwill to Beijing.
Do these warming ties suggest an ordinary ebb and flow between the two nations, or represent a significant shift in policy? It is simply too early to answer this question. Yet Obama’s recent moves do seem to reflect a greater understanding of how China sees itself in the world, an understanding that had thus far eluded his administration.
Over the past decade or so China has positioned itself as both a major international stakeholder and as a developing country wishing to be left alone. This latter position has until recently served as the best explanation for Beijing’s solidarity with Tehran. China was willing to buy Iran’s claim that its nuclear program was a matter of national sovereignty because that claim echoes China’s own approach to foreign criticism. This—and the not so tiny matter of China’s dependence on Iranian oil—explained the Chinese reluctance to support any kind of sanctions regime against Iran.
Why then have the Chinese suddenly changed course? My sense is that the US has appealed to the other half of China’s fractured self-identity—that China is a major country and has certain responsibilities on the global stage. Beijing now seems convinced that Iran’s nuclear ambitions threaten global security and can no longer be described as a purely domestic issue. The US in turn is now willing to look the other way on the currency issue in order to gain China’s support for the more pressing matter of Iran.
It remains to be seen how the Iranian nuclear issue will play out—my own sense is that sanctions are a terrible idea and will accomplish little but to unite the Iranian people behind their government—yet by decoupling Iran from other elements of the relationship between the U.S. and China, Washington was able to win over the normally intransigent Communist Party leadership.
Of course, the currency issue isn’t just going to go away. With the visit of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Beijing, all eyes are now on the value of the RMB. But on a more general level the Obama Administration appears to view China less as an adversary and rival and more as a fellow mega-state full of internal contradictions and nuances that can be exploited for the common good.