Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Biden visit a welcome change

By Dennis V. Hickey (China Daily) Updated: 2011-08-16 08:10

China is gearing up to welcome US Vice President Joseph Biden to Beijing on Aug 17. As the White House explained, Biden will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiaobao, "to consult on a broad range of bilateral, regional and global issues". The White House, however, did not provide details about the nature of the talks.

What will be the topics of the discussions? Is there hope for major improvement in Sino-US relations? As with any high-profile diplomatic initiative, many questions have been raised.

Although specifics have not been provided, observers speculate that the issues to be discussed would include the global economic turmoil, the South China Sea disputes and US arms sales to Taiwan. A wide range of pressing international problems, including terrorism, global warming, environmental degradation and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to name just a few, could also find their way into the talks.

Economics will top the discussion agenda. The fallout from the downgrading of the US credit rating by Standard & Poor's and the political battle over the country's debt ceiling and faltering economy threaten the health of the global economy. Unfortunately, the US economic calamity has hit global markets at a time when the European Union is struggling with its own debt crisis and China is fighting inflation and a sharp rise in housing prices.

Globalization has made the world much more interrelated and interconnected. What happens in one country will have an impact on what happens in other countries. Hence, it should come as no surprise that many Chinese media outlets responded to the downgrading of the US credit rating by urging Washington to "cure its addiction to debt" and "live within its means." For starters, they suggested that the US curb its "gigantic military expenditures".

One may expect Chinese officials to express similar sentiments (in a more diplomatic way) during their talks with Biden. As for Biden, one could anticipate that he would reiterate his government's longstanding complaints against China's "predatory trade policies", "neo-mercantilism" and "undervalued currency".

The South China Sea disputes could also be discussed. For centuries, successive Chinese governments have claimed the South China Sea as part of the nation's territory. Now that some neighboring countries are contesting this position, China has expressed its willingness to peacefully discuss the competing claims on a bilateral basis without outside interference.

This did not represent a problem in Sino-US relations until Washington jettisoned its neutral position toward the issue. On July 23, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US has a "national interest" in the South China Sea and offered various multilateral remedies to settle competing claims. This turnaround in US policy has offended China.

Relations between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland have improved significantly since 2008, and the US welcomes the rapprochement in cross-Straits relations. As US President Barack Obama said: "We hope this progress continues because it is in the interest of both sides, the region and the United States."

But the Obama administration is under pressure to sell F-16 warplanes to Taiwan. Indeed, on Aug 1, 181 American lawmakers submitted a petition to the president asking him to approve the sale, arguing that it "would support thousands of American jobs - especially well-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector."

Ironically, Bidden will land in Beijing on Aug 17, the 29th anniversary of the 1982 Sino-US Joint Communiqu. In the agreement, Washington pledged "to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution". But this has not happened. Instead, US arms sales to Taiwan have escalated.

Washington has reportedly said that Biden will not discuss any matters related to arms deals with Taiwan. It would be naive to believe this. The issue will be raised. Chinese officials will voice strong opposition to such arms sales and say that they constitute gross interference in China's internal affairs, violate past agreements, do nothing to improve cross-Straits relations and serve only to embolden a small group of "Taiwan separatists".

Biden will probably not provide any specifics about the F-16 controversy and may not even know if the sale will be approved (Clinton has said the decision will be announced no later than Oct 1 - China's National Day). But the US vice-president will probably contend that US arms sales promote stability and are required by American law.

From China, Biden will travel to Mongolia and Japan. But given the stakes involved, it is likely that his visits to Beijing and Chengdu will be the most important stops on his trip. Still, one should not expect too much from Biden's visit to China. There are deep differences between the two countries. But this is precisely why it is important for high-ranking American and Chinese officials to work together to overcome distrust, manage relations and make efforts to avoid conflict and discord.

After all, it is clear that both countries are highly interdependent and need each other.

The author is the director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.

(China Daily 08/16/2011 page9)

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