U.S. and China improve tone despite big gap in trust

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; A06

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.

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.

A month after the first summit, U.S. and Chinese officials were scrumming in the halls in Copenhagen during the international conference on climate change. But this month, the two narrowed their differences on a key issue that scuttled the talks last year - the verification of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

At the United Nations' climate talks in Mexico, China gave a little by accepting a more detailed framework for subjecting its carbon cuts to international scrutiny. That set the stage for a final pact known as "the Cancun Agreements," in which industrialized countries agreed to help fund poor nations' efforts to cope with climate impacts and cut their emissions.

All year, U.S. and Chinese officials have bickered over economic issues, specifically access to China's markets and China's unwillingness to allow its currency, the yuan, to appreciate significantly against the dollar.

But again the tone has shifted. When the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade wrapped up a meeting in Washington on Dec. 15, senior U.S. officials hailed China's cooperation. China said it would open new technology and agriculture markets for U.S. products and would toughen enforcement of intellectual property and software piracy laws.

Administration officials have taken another U-turn when it comes to relations with China's military. China froze those ties in January, after the administration announced plans to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion in weapons.

Throughout the year, Chinese military officers have criticized the United States, leading a charge at one point against U.S. plans to conduct exercises in the Yellow Sea - something that Washington for years has considered routine.

But at the same time, both sides have been moving to reopen ties. On Dec. 13, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy met with Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will head to Beijing next month.

At the end of the talks, Flournoy was full of praise for her Chinese counterpart, saying the "tone of the discussion was more positive, more frank" and describing the talks as "enlightening."

Flournoy also told reporters that she and other officials gave Ma and his entourage the same briefings on the U.S. nuclear, ballistic missile and space postures "that we gave our closest allies."

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