US and China: Powerplays and mistrust

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The United States and China, West and East, the superpower and its rising rival - there are countless ways of characterising the relationship between these two nations.

But almost every one is animated by the idea that we are witnessing an historic shift. The tectonic plates of power are moving, and the results are unpredictable.

So the eve of Hu Jintao's state visit to America seems a pretty fortuitous place to begin what aims to be an occasional column from China.

How the future balance between Washington and Beijing plays out will go far in shaping the world in the coming decades. Will these two be friends or enemies? Will they be rivals or partners?

Will they co-operate or find themselves in conflict? The answer could have far-reaching effects on all our lives.

Seen from here in Beijing, the next few days carry real importance. It's President Hu's first state visit to Washington, but it's also probably his last one as he's due to step down next year.

It's about status and legacy, about confirming China's new place in the world, about President Hu being seen to walk the red carpet side by side with Barack Obama.

What is interesting is that China appears to have few real goals for the visit when it comes to substantive policy, no burning issues on which it wants to make progress. That's partly because a Chinese president doesn't travel abroad with a mandate to negotiate the way an American president does. But it's also because, above all, China wants this visit to pass smoothly, it doesn't want any open disputes or nasty surprises.

"We both stand to gain from a sound China-US relationship, and lose from confrontation," President Hu told the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal before leaving.

But, if truth be told, the relationship between America and China has, of late, been a pretty rocky one. There are many sources of tension lurking beneath the surface and the disputes run deep, from currency to trade, to China's military build-up and its support for North Korea.

All of this has been pretty clearly on show in the run-up to the visit.

The US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke last week of America's frustrations at China's management of its exchange rate, and indicated China would only be given greater access to American markets and American technology if it opens up more to US firms.

President Hu was critical about the dominance of the US dollar, saying "the current international currency system is a product of the past."

The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing last week does not seem to have been a great success. He was seeking more open military-to-military ties. China chose the very same day to test-fly its new stealth fighter. The impression is that the PLA's generals don't see much value in being more transparent with America.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of human rights concerns and the jailing of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo saying, "China represses freedoms."

Her words are worth paying attention to because she added "distrust lingers on both sides... some in the region and some here at home see China's growth as a threat that will lead either to a Cold War-style conflict or American decline... and some in China worry that the United States is bent on containing their rise and constraining their growth - a view that is stoking a new streak of assertive Chinese nationalism. We reject those views."

President Hu echoed Mrs Clinton, saying, "we should abandon the zero-sum Cold War mentality."

Many in China do fear that America is really trying to encircle and undermine them. And the US seems to be tiring of offering dialogue and co-operation with China but seeming to get little in return.

Instead the Obama administration now seems ready to show China there is a cost to its actions. North Korea could be a case in point.

America sees a real and growing threat from North Korea's missiles and nuclear programme, and it feels China could do much more to rein in Pyongyang. If China doesn't act, it may well see more US military exercises in the region and closer US military ties with South Korea and Japan. That in turn will fuel Chinese fears that America is trying to encircle it.

Look a little further ahead and things get even more tricky. Both the United States and China are entering a period when domestic political concerns are beginning to loom large.

2012 marks a US presidential election and a change in China's leadership. China's rising generation of leaders, jockeying for position, are unlikely to see any benefit in talking about compromise with America just now.

In Washington the temptation to blame China for lost jobs or unfair competition will only grow.

So hold tight, because it's quite possible that the next chapter in the story of China's changing relationship with America could be one where we see more turbulence, more tension, not more partnership and co-operation.