Chinese President Hu Jintao will arrive in Washington today for an official state visit with U.S. President Barack Obama. If the tenor of bilateral relations were based simply on the number of meetings held, you could be excused for concluding that the U.S. and China were among the closest of allies. This week’s visit marks the Chinese leader’s third trip to the United States since President Obama’s inauguration two years ago, while Obama himself has gone to Beijing twice already, and has met repeatedly with his Chinese counterpart at larger summits (most recently in Seoul, South Korea). All the while, the American agenda has remained broadly the same: currency valuation and global trade imbalances — not to mention the never-ending debates over political values and human rights, whether to impose sanctions on Iran, climate change, North Korean aggression and the multi-party talks. What has changed over the years is the tone of the conversation — which has become openly more assertive, on the Chinese side, and disturbingly more subservient on the American side.
Amidst this backdrop of an increasingly strained bilateral relationship, it’s hard to remember that as recently as one year ago there was talk of a U.S.-China privileged partnership, a so-called G-2 that was said to have the potential to change the world. This prospect was especially painful for the Europeans, who fear an American drift toward Asia and, as a result, a “benign neglect” of Europe. The cancellation of a U.S.-E.U. summit meeting last spring was bitterly criticized in Europe, where it was belatedly noted that Obama’s tri-continental background does not include Europe, a continent for which the newly-elected president does not have the same depth of personal feelings as he has for Africa and Asia.
But such talks of a global partnership with China were as exaggerated then as current apprehensions of a neglect of Europe are unfounded today. Europe’s confusion about the role it can play in the world, which most E.U. members still prefer to assume together with the United States rather than on their own, stems more from its current institutional disarray, worsened by a spreading financial crisis and mismanaged by weak leadership. Europe is no longer an indispensible ally for the United States, and it’s become tempting for the U.S. to look for new partners, like China.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, has embarked on its own courtships of the many supplicants it finds around the world. There is Africa — a continent that can be had on the cheap so long as there is not too much haggling over such small issues as human rights and the like. Closer to us, there is Latin America, beginning with the new regional sheriff, Brazil, which made China its first trade partner in 2009, and its first foreign investor in 2010. And there is also, and perhaps most of all, Europe.
In recent weeks, China has offered to assist in stabilizing the euro zone with very public promises to buy Portuguese and Spanish sovereign bonds — following earlier offers to purchase Greek debt as well. This past week, Deputy Premier Li Keqiang (expected to be China’s next premier come 2012) visited Britain and Germany, as well as Spain, as part of his euro-tour. Chinese funds are also making investments in newer E.U. members like Poland and Hungary. And there are rumors that the E.U. is considering reversing its long-standing arms embargo on China.
Every U.S. administration since the Nixon administration has sought to normalize U.S. relations with China, and those efforts have paid off. But normalization is still an ongoing process, and while high-level meetings between American and Chinese leaders have helped limit the strategic rivalry between the two countries, those meetings do not yet add up to any sort of broader strategic partnership. In the end, continued U.S. differences with China point to a relationship that is far more strained than the frequency of such summitry would suggest. For the two men about to meet in Washington this week, therefore, the urge to bond will not test their ability to lead but rather their willingness to disagree.
Alexis Serfaty is the Policy Director for the European-American Business Council.