COLIN Powell, the American Secretary of State, stated recently that America’s relations with China have been the best in recent years.
If this is true this augurs well for Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's trip, set to begin yesterday, to the United States.
It is not difficult to understand why Powell spoke thus. It was only in April 2001 that China and the United States confronted each other over the American spy plane that landed on Hainan island, a confrontation which – had it not been defused – could have caused the bilateral relations to go on a downward spiral.
Now some two-and-a-half years later, not only has tension between the two powers subsided but China is increasingly seen by the United States as a country willing to co-operate on issues important to the United States such as in the war against terrorism and in the resolution of the North Korean crisis.
Among the reasons for this improved relations are Sept 11 and the changing Chinese perception of their place in the world.
Before Sept 11, there were many US groups that were looking for a post-Cold War enemy to replace the Soviet Union.
These groups believed such an enemy was not only necessary to unify the American nation but also to justify increased military expenditure and the imposition of their, mainly conservative, agenda on the American nation.
China, with its rising power and its adherence to a communist ideology, could fit the bill. Witness the hysteria generated before Sept 11 in some American quarters over the “Chinese threat.”
Sept 11, however, pushed though not removed, this Chinese threat to the backburner for these groups.
More pressing and convincing for the American people was the threat of international terrorism, and it is not surprising that these groups are now exploiting the terrorism threat to the hilt in order to advance their agenda. Hence Sino-American relations have become less tense as a result.
Second, the Chinese in recent years have become more confident of their place in the world. This is a result of their economic development and their achievements in the international arena such as their successful bid to host the Olympic Games, their entry into the WTO and the general respect in which it is held by many countries today.
These have led many Chinese to overcome the victim complex, a complex that developed as a result of 150 years of humiliation by the Western powers and Japan.
Also, many Chinese have increasingly come to accept that the emergence of their country as a great power should be within the “rules” of the present international system – “rules” that have been determined greatly by the United States.
This new Chinese attitude lessens the possibility of confrontation with the United States.
But one should not be too sanguine.
Just as Wen's visit marks the good relations between both, two issues have cropped up to cloud the visit.
One is Taiwan – an issue from the past – and the other the trade dispute, an issue of the future, if one can describe both issues in this way.
Taiwan is an issue from the past because it represents the inability of the Chinese to resolve their civil war and more pertinently for Sino-US relations that for all the moves made by Nixon and Carter to normalise relations with China, that normalisation is not complete until the Taiwanese problem is resolved.
The trade issue is symbolic of the problems China could face in the future as a result of its inexorable rise.
I do not wish to dwell on the Taiwanese issue as I have written on it in a previous column.
The Chinese are also concerned over the recent moves by the Americans to put tariffs on certain Chinese textile exports and the imposition on certain Chinese (and incidentally also Malaysian) TV sets. They see such moves as unjustified.
While such restrictions will not affect much of Chinese exports to America and while they appreciate that they have to reduce the great surplus they enjoy in their bilateral trade, the Chinese do not believe they are primarily at fault.
They do not believe (a view with which the IMF also concurs) the present value of their currency, as asserted by the Bush administration and many members of Congress, is responsible for the surplus or job losses in America.
They believe the surplus arises from genuine Chinese competitiveness. They also point out that much (more than half) of the increase in Chinese exports since 1994 were brought about by multinationals operating in China.
Undoubtedly, Wen will make some or all of these points to the Americans but whether they will be accepted by the Americans remain to be seen.
For all the present good Sino-American relations, these two issues serve to remind us that Sino-American relations are still quite fluid and that the United States, and indeed the world, will have to grapple with the problem of the emergence of China as a great power in the modern world.
But this emergence, if handled properly by the Americans, need not be globally destabilising.
Did you find this article insightful?