Opinion: US-China summit marks a new start in bilateral relations | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 20.01.2011
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Opinion: US-China summit marks a new start in bilateral relations

Chinese President Hu Jintao's meeting with his US counterpart Barack Obama was expected to usher in a new chapter in Sino-US relations. It is at the least a very good start, says DW's Adrienne Woltersdorf.


The People's Republic of China is no longer being considered as a junior partner in Washington DC. Just this fact makes this summit different from the previous four visits to the US by a Chinese leader.

On Thursday, the Beijing government announced that China’s economy had grown at a rate of 10.3 percent last year – faster than economists had expected and more than three times as fast as the US.

China might even have overtaken Japan as the world's second economy but Tokyo's figures have not yet been published.

When Hu Jintao visited the White House five years ago, China was still in fifth place. This swift development means that the Hu-Obama summit marks a turning point – the Chinese president is visiting a country whose citizens think that the US will fall behind China.

The meeting is more about how this difficult relationship between China and the US can be managed in psychological terms.

The two heads of state both sent signals of strength to their domestic audiences but at the same time tried to downplay fears in the other country. Ahead of the meeting there had been loud criticism on both sides of the other's attitude to currency policy and human rights but Hu and Obama made efforts to stress unity.

Adrienne Woltersdorf is the head of Deutsche Welle's Chinese section

Adrienne Woltersdorf is the head of Deutsche Welle's Chinese section

Obama reassured the Chinese that the US had no intentions of surrounding their country and did not want to prevent its rise. However, at the same time he did demonstratively place the focus on human rights. And surprisingly he struck lucky: The Chinese head of state admitted for the first time that human rights are universal and said China still had some homework to do in this area. Another controversial topic – the undervalued yuan – was only really mentioned in passing.

The trip to Washington was also symbolic for Hu Jintao. He has managed to calm down the sable-rattlers at home for a while. Their growing influence and militancy in foreign policy led to substantial disgruntlement last year in the region and in bilateral relations with the US.

Hu refrained from criticizing what China views as the US' irresponsible monetary policy. Nor did he mention China’s worries about the reliability of US holdings – China is currently the biggest foreign holder with some 900 billion US dollars’ worth in its reserves.

The fact that there was so much diplomacy on both sides indicates a change of attitude. Time will tell if it is only rhetoric, especially regarding controversial matters such as currency policy. But the psychological message is clear: We want rapprochement.

Considering the difficult relationship the two superpowers have had in the past two years, Europe can breathe a sigh of relief now. The Americans are slowly understanding that China is not responsible for their economic problems and that these are home-made. And China’s hardliners will also have to admit that a militant China is likely to send its regional neighbors running into the arms of the US than into its own.

This realization on both sides will help calm down the troublemakers who had become more influential in Beijing and Washington. The two have to go back to the negotiating table as soon as possible. And both heads of state have little time for maneuver, as in both countries the fight for the presidency is about to begin - in 2012 there could be a change of leadership.

Only if China and the US become closer in a constructive way can global challenges such as the undervalued Chinese currency and climate change be tackled. This also holds true for global threats such as heavily-armed North Korea and Iran. The US and China are neither friends nor foes but theirs is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Europe will benefit fully if the two finally address these pressing issues.

Author: Adrienne Woltersdorf/act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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