U.S., China end year on positive note as they prepare for presidential summit

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 11:47 PM

The United States and China are closing out the year on a positive note on many fronts - including trade, military ties, climate change and global security - as both sides prepare for their presidents' second summit, set for next month.

After a tense year during which U.S. officials, including President Obama, openly criticized China, and their Chinese counterparts returned the favor, there is a sudden switch in tone from the Commerce Department to the National Security Council. Instead of portraying China as protectionist or as an "enabler" of North Korea's provocations, administration officials are praising China, referring to it again as a responsible partner.

In part, the improved tone reflects Washington's success in leveraging Beijing's desire for a smooth summit to get concessions from China or nudge it toward policies closer to Washington's liking.

That said, significant problems - such as a yawning gap in strategic trust - bedevil the relationship between the world's sole superpower and a surging counterpart that is both a partner and a rival.

"You've got leaders in the United States and in China that want to do everything possible to limit direct confrontation," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, "but structurally, both countries are going to have a hard time avoiding it."

The most remarkable about-face has occurred in the administration's attitude toward China over the Korean Peninsula. Two weeks ago, a senior administration official accused China of creating the conditions that allowed North Korea to start a uranium-enrichment program and launch two deadly attacks on South Korea. The tensions on the peninsula threatened to dominate the summit.

But in recent days, senior administration officials have praised China for pressing North Korea not to react to a South Korean military drill Monday. Officials referred specifically to a visit by China's top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, to North Korea on Dec. 9. After the meeting, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that China and North Korea had reached a "consensus" on the situation on the peninsula - which many analysts interpreted as meaning North Korea had agreed not to provoke South Korea in the short term.

Administration officials also commended China for soft-pedaling a proposal to hold emergency talks between South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States as part of a way to calm the situation. Instead, the officials said that China had accepted a U.S. plan that put improving ties between the South and the North ahead of any multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Administration officials portrayed the United States and China as working in lockstep in dealing with the crisis, which many thought had reached the brink of war last weekend. China continued to urge restraint on North Korea, they said, while the United States worked with Seoul to ensure that its exercises were "firm" but also "non-confrontational and non-escalatory," a senior administration said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether China's pressure has worked. On Thursday, North Korea threatened to launch a "sacred" nuclear war that would "wipe out" South Korea and the United States if they started a conflict.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington on Jan. 19. Obama visited China in November 2009.

Hu, who will also stop in Chicago, plans to highlight the positive aspects of China's ties with the United States. Among other events, he is expected to visit a Chinese-owned auto parts plant, a joint U.S.-China clean-energy project and a school where Chinese is taught with help from the Beijing government. China is also considering an administration request to hold a joint news conference with Obama - something Hu rarely does. No such event was held when Obama visited Beijing.

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