Small steps forward for U.S.-China ties

April 27, 2006|By BONNIE S. GLASER

WASHINGTON -- No agreements were signed, there was no substantial narrowing of differences in any of the knotty issues discussed and no benchmarks established to measure future progress. Yet the summit between President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao should not be condemned as a failure.

U.S.-China relations are complex, and existing problems don't lend themselves to quick solutions. A close read of the pre-summit meetings, the presidential toasts and speeches and official read-outs provides reasons to judge last week's summit a modest success.

More important than the $16.2 billion in U.S. products that the Chinese pledged to purchase in the run-up to the summit is Mr. Hu's commitment to move China from an export-based economy to a consumer-based economy. Reducing China's high savings rate and boosting domestic demand are among the keys to addressing the $202 billion U.S.-China trade imbalance.

Market access for American companies will be expanded.

At the April 11 meeting of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT), China agreed to resume imports of U.S. beef by June 30 and open the market wider for telecommunication service providers and medical devices. Beijing also committed to accede to the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement and produce a "federal register" of all trade-related measures. That accord will improve access of U.S. companies to Chinese government purchases.

Progress at the JCCT also was made on protection of intellectual property rights, which produced a Chinese promise to require the preloading of legal software on all computers produced or imported to China. In addition, Beijing took action to shut down or stop 14 factories from producing pirated CDs and DVDs.

But there was no forward movement on the reform of China's currency. Mr. Hu merely reiterated that he would keep the exchange "basically stable" while continuing to "make efforts to improve" the rate of exchange between the dollar and the yuan. A revalued yuan would make Chinese goods more expensive in the United States, improving the balance of trade.

In July, Beijing revalued its currency by a paltry 2.1 percent but replaced its currency system pegged to the dollar with a basket of currencies, giving it the ability to gradually adjust the exchange rate. Mr. Bush called on Mr. Hu to step up the pace of currency reform. If the Chinese don't comply, Congress likely will act.

Although no deals were struck on the challenges to nuclear nonproliferation posed by Iran and North Korea or the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Mr. Hu for the first time endorsed the concept introduced last year by Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick that both China and the United States have a stake in the international system.

If Beijing truly embraces the notion that it has a responsibility to contribute to strengthening the international system, opportunities for security cooperation will likely increase in the future.

Small gains were made on freedom and human rights. The Chinese agreed to move forward on several U.S. proposals, including prisoner releases. Mr. Bush raised concerns about the tightening of Chinese controls on Internet access. He also voiced U.S. objection to the return of a North Korean asylum seeker and pressed China to adhere to its commitments under the Refugee Convention.

A glimmer of hope for greater tolerance and political liberalization was raised in Mr. Hu's remark that "if there is no democracy, there will be no modernization." Recognition that economic development and political reform must go hand in hand was unprecedented, and one hopes it indicates that Mr. Hu plans to accelerate political reform in the near future.

Finally, the two presidents agreed to step up cooperation to combat the spread of avian flu, open talks on potential cooperation on lunar space exploration and expand military-to-military exchanges, including a discussion of strategic nuclear strategy and doctrine.

While the summit's accomplishments are not momentous, they are important in managing the world's most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. The dangers of U.S.-Chinese strategic competition are real and must be averted.

When the U.S. and Chinese leaders next meet, they should go beyond traditional bilateral matters and engage in a broader strategic discussion about the implications of China's emergence as a more powerful global player. China's rise poses opportunities and challenges that should be dealt with head-on to ensure maximum benefit and minimal disruption to the international system.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a consultant to the U.S. government. Her e-mail is

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