U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wraps up his three-day visit to China Wednesday, a trip that was seen as a small step toward building and stabilizing relations between the two countries.
The Obama administration considers that particularly important given China's growing dominance -- politically, economically and militarily.
There are many efforts under way -- beyond Gates' visit -- to help define the constantly shifting U.S.-China relationship. Next week, Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao will meet in Washington, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to unveil the administration's vision for relations in the 21st century.
A 'Reset' In Ties
Dean Cheng, a China expert with the Heritage Foundation, says all this activity is taking place because the U.S. and China are at a pivotal junction in their relationship.
"I think that what we're seeing is an administration that is trying to reset China policy along the lines of the previous reset regarding Russian policy," he said.
Cynthia Watson, a professor of strategy at the National War College, says the Obama administration has made clear it wants a stable relationship with China.
"The president has said several times we want to have an ongoing relationship with China, we want to have a military-to-military relationship with China," she said.
Watson says the U.S. wants to understand better what China is doing, and assumes China wants to understand better what the U.S. is doing.
The complex Sino-American relationship is especially dynamic now because of China's growing strength, says the Heritage Foundation's Cheng. He says the Obama administration is trying to articulate how it hopes China will use that newfound power.
"The hope here is to be able to influence China into following a path that is more transparent, that is one that takes into account the legitimate concerns of its neighbors and to reach some kind of modus vivendi between Washington and Beijing," he said.
But Cheng says China's general lack of transparency, its tendency toward secrecy, especially in the security field, makes that hard to do.
Part of the problem is that China itself may be uncertain of the direction in which it's heading.
Abraham Denmark, a China specialist at the Center for A New American Security, says there are divisions within the ruling Communist Party and the powerful military over this issue.
"We see different elements of China's approach: Sometimes China acts very positively, very constructively, sometimes exclusionary, negative and aggressive," Denmark said. "So we're not sure what direction China is moving in."
One thing that is certain: As China's power increases, so too does its expectation that the U.S. will make certain accommodations, says University of Virginia professor Harry Harding, a longtime China watcher.
"If the U.S. was going to ask things of China, China was now in a position to ask things of the United States -- such things as agreeing to end arms sales to Taiwan, agreeing to stop having military exercises or reconnaissance missions close in to Chinese shoreline, near Chinese waters," Harding said.
Harding says the U.S. hasn't agreed to do any of these things. Conversely, China hasn't addressed U.S. concerns over issues such as human rights, trade imbalance and the strength of its currency. Harding says he worries those lingering, unresolved issues could fester. But he says overall the U.S.-China relationship is resilient. He points to the economic turbulence of 2010, which many people speculated would lead to a breakdown in relations between the two countries.
"I think many people thought that was going to be the result of the global downturn, resulting in [a] pretty open trade war," he said. "That didn't happen, and I think that it shows that despite all the differences and all the tensions, the two countries are highly interdependent."
Still, Harding says he worries that other factors could cause a breach between the two nations, such as the collapse of North Korea or a conflict over Taiwan. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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