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US-CHINA: Spring Thaw in the Air?

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Apr 2 2010 (IPS) - Springtime appears to be bringing a thaw in U.S.-China relations, with U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao holding an hour-long phone conversation Thursday in which both leaders expressed a desire to build a more positive bilateral relationship

It marked a major shift from the past several months in which Beijing loudly denounced the Obama administration’s decision to move forward with arms sales to Taiwan and receive the Dalai Lama at the White House.

Recent China-U.S. relations have been clouded by angry rhetoric from both sides of the Pacific, with increasing talk in Washington that the U.S. Treasury should name China a currency manipulator in its Apr. 15 report.

Chinese television reported that Hu reiterated China’s positions on Taiwan and Tibet during the phone conversation – Air Force One had to be held for 10 minutes on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base so the two leaders could complete their call – but areas of potential cooperation were reported to have dominated the discussion.

In particular, the White House has been eager to enlist China in backing sanctions against Iran, a necessary ally if the U.S. hopes to avoid a veto of such sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.

Earlier this week, signs emerged that relations between the two countries might be improving after Hu announced his decision to attend the nuclear security summit meeting in Washington next week.

Hu’s decision to attend the summit will have particular relevance to U.S. policy towards North Korea – which is rumoured to be on the verge of returning to the Six-Party Talks – and to the White House’s efforts to bring U.N. sanctions against Iran.

The announcement relieved many in Washington who feared Beijing would boycott the summit to register its anger with the Obama administration over its perceived threatening of Chinese “core interests” – Taiwan and Tibet.

The Treasury’s report on currency manipulators, in which a large coalition in Congress would like to see China listed, will be released later this month but it is looking increasingly unlikely that the administration will choose to attack China’s peg of the RMB in such a formal manner.

“That doesn’t mean it’s off the table but it buys China more time and it’s a decision that won’t be made while [Hu’s] here or right after his visit,” Bonnie S. Glaser, senior fellow in China studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told IPS.

Hu’s willingness to attend the summit would suggest that the issue of China’s peg of the RMB has been taken off the table for the time being and might be postponed until the June meeting of the G20 in Toronto.

Many economists have speculated that China may readjust the RMB in the near future and, last month, China’s central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, stated that the RMB’s unofficial peg to the U.S. dollar is a “special” measure that will eventually end.

In the meantime, the Obama administration may have gained a valuable ally if it is going to push for sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.

On Wednesday, news emerged that China might support U.N. sanctions designed to put pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear programme, but official statements from Chinese officials avoided the question of whether Beijing would support sanctions.

“China maintains that the international non-proliferation regime should be upheld and regional peace, security and stability should be guaranteed,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters on Wednesday after Chinese, U.S., British, French and German officials had completed a telephone conference on the Iranian nuclear issue.

“We will always proceed from these two points in discussing the issue and play a responsible, positive and constructive role so that the Iranian nuclear issue can be properly addressed. We believe any solution or result should be consistent with the above-mentioned two goals,” he said.

Over the past months, many analysts have suggested that China’s vehement objections to the White House’s sale of arms to Taiwan and meeting with the Dalai Lama were indicative of a sense in Beijing that the U.S. was declining in power and that China had newfound political and economic muscle to flex.

With the war of words, at least for now, appearing to have come to an end, the question of what the U.S. and China gained from the recent months of tense relations remains to be answered.

“…[I]f you look at the balance sheet, [Beijing] didn’t get very much on the Tibet and Taiwan question. The important thing we got was on Iran sanctions. That, and getting beyond Taiwan and Tibet without making any concessions, was the most important thing the U.S. was looking for. We didn’t break any new ground on these issues,” said Glaser.

With the arms sales to Taiwan and the visit by the Dalai Lama now completed, both Washington and Beijing seem to have decided to move forward on areas of mutual concern.

“Are there any lessons learned on our side? Will people be less willing to go ahead with another arms sale to Taiwan since they don’t want an even more serious episode? It’s not clear to me that U.S. officials will even address that issue before it is necessary to do so,” Glaser concluded.

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