Private efforts help resolve public tensions between U.S. and China

In November, Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, hosted President Obama at a state dinner. Hu is to visit Washington next week.
In November, Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, hosted President Obama at a state dinner. Hu is to visit Washington next week. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

On March 29, halfway into a statement about an upcoming trip to the Balkans, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg pivoted somewhat incongruously and began discussing a recent trip he had taken to Beijing.

Addressing reporters at the Washington Foreign Press Center, Steinberg announced that contrary to the worries of some (he didn't say who), U.S. policy on China had not changed, that the United States still abided by its "one-China" policy and that it opposed independence for Taiwan and Tibet. His statement, he assured the assembled journalists, was "for the benefit of our Asian colleagues here."

Actually, it was for the benefit of China.

Steinberg's appearance came in the middle of an intensely choreographed series of moves by Washington and Beijing to get the U.S.-China relationship back on track. After almost three months of bickering over Google, arms sales to Taiwan, China's currency, the Dalai Lama and Iran, both sides had concluded that it was time to move on.

As each side issued demands, the United States bent a little. It used appearances by President Obama and Steinberg to soothe ruffled feathers in Beijing and announced that it would delay a Treasury Department report that was expected to allege that China was keeping the value of its currency, the yuan, artificially low.

But China bent even more, diplomats from both countries say. It acceded to a U.S. request that China join talks on sanctioning Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program. China said its president, Hu Jintao, would attend the Nuclear Security Summit, which will begin Monday in Washington.

Beijing signaled strongly that it would soon revalue its currency, just weeks after its premier had said no revaluation was in the cards. And it came away empty-handed in its demands that the Obama administration stop selling weapons to Taiwan and that the president discontinue the decade-old tradition of meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The diplomatic maneuvering that started in March and continued through this week provides an important vantage point on what Obama has called the United States' most important bilateral relationship.

Analysts said it marked a sign that the president -- who became directly involved in the negotiations at least once and guided their course throughout, administration officials said -- has matured significantly in his ability to deal with China.

Important reality

But the diplomatic dance also underscored an important reality in U.S.-China relations. Although it's fashionable to think that China, with its juggernaut economy and its billions in U.S. Treasury bonds, has the United States at its mercy, Chinese and U.S. analysts and government officials said the events of the past month show that Beijing is still having a hard time translating its new heft into the real power to force changes on those perennial issues that Chinese leaders consider part of their "core interests" -- Tibet and Taiwan.

"It was exceptionally deft handling of the Chinese. It was a choreographed diplomatic deal," said Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There was a recognition on the part of U.S. officials that China was ready to reengage but needed help to get out of the corner that they'd put themselves into."

The "handling" began days after Obama's Feb. 18 meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing has described as a "splittist" intent on fragmenting China. Weeks before, the United States had announced that it was going to sell $6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan, China's nemesis, sending relations into a tailspin.

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