By William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 4:14 AM
BEIJING - At a time of tension in U.S.-China relations, a three-day visit by senior U.S. officials to Beijing began Monday with signs that Chinese leaders want to smooth over some key frictions.
"Sound" and "stable" was how a top Communist Party official described the two countries' relationship while receiving the U.S. delegation, which included National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers and deputy national security adviser Thomas Donilon.
The meeting comes after the U.S.-China relationship has been battered on several fronts. The United States has fought with China during the past few months over China's trade surplus and currency valuation, with little to show for it. U.S.-South Korea military exercises near the Chinese coast have incensed Chinese officials, as did President Obama's meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, both of which happened earlier this year.
Rhetoric on both sides has ratcheted up in recent weeks on national security issues - with China's state-owned party papers denouncing U.S. interference in South China Sea issues, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responding in July at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting that the area is part of her country's "national interest," which set off more fuming in party papers.
On Monday, both sides expressed hope that meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials scheduled in coming weeks may help thaw some of the recent difficulties.
"Although there were some disturbances in China-U.S. relations, in April and May after President Obama and President Hu Jintao had two meetings, our relations have gotten back on a sound track," Li Yuanchao, head of the section in the Chinese government that oversees senior party appointments, said before the closed-door talks began.
Later Monday, according to the Associated Press, Summers told Vice Premier Wang Qishan that Obama "has emphasized for us the importance he attaches to a very strong relationship between the United Sates and China." Among this visit's top issues, Summers added, is setting up a trip for Hu to Washington.
Still to come in the next few months are Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit in a few weeks to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade and the Group of 20 summit, where additional China-U.S. talks may occur. Hu is likely to visit the United States in January.
Some of the most pressing issues in this week's meetings involve the Korean Peninsula, said Shi Yinhong, an international studies professor at Beijing's Renmin University. There have been icy feelings all around, he said, since the Cheonan, a warship belonging to U.S. ally South Korea, was sunk near the border of China's ally, North Korea.
"Neither China nor the U.S. wants to make a concession on this," Shi said, "but the two countries also don't seem to want the relationship to deteriorate again."
Also likely to be much discussed during this week's visit is the yuan exchange rate. After heavy U.S. pressure, China pledged in June to change its stringent control of the yuan, which some believe makes Chinese exports cheaper and more competitive because the yuan is undervalued. But, since that pledge, the yuan has hardly budged, rising only 0.6 percent.
With the U.S. midterm elections approaching and the economy likely to be a chief topic, pressure is growing in Washington to make progress on the issue of China currency and trade. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others on Capitol Hill are threatening to push legislation this fall that would increase tariffs on Chinese imports.
But it's unclear whether more pressure and talk in the days and weeks ahead will change anything.
"In the eyes of the Chinese, American economists are obsessed with this exchange rate. That's all they want to talk about when they visit," said Andy Xie, a Shanghai-based economist. "But it's more complicated than that. Given what's happened so far, I seriously doubt any major change will come from these talks. Even if China's exchange rate goes up, it won't be by a lot."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.