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US-China relations: 5 things you need to know

As longtime rivals come together in Beijing this week, who will call the shots this time?

A shop owner exchanges a Chinese yuan banknote with a customer in central Beijing, April 13, 2010. Top-level U.S.-China talks are set for Beijing this week. (David Gray/Reuters)

BEIJING, China — With top-level U.S.-China talks set for Beijing this week, Sino-American relations are once again grabbing headlines. Here are five things you should know about the U.S.-China relationship.

1. It’s never been easy

Headlines proclaim a partnership fraught with problems, as the United States and China try to manage a relationship that’s more interconnected than ever before. But consider that the U.S. and the current ruling party of China have a long and storied past full of much bigger and more dangerous troubles. Today’s trade frictions and squabbles over issues like censorship and intellectual property rights seem downright friendly compared to decades past, particularly the open animosity before the two countries established diplomatic relations three decades ago. Most experts on U.S.-China relations say that ties between the two nations have never been stronger than during the past few years. 

2. U.S. President Barack Obama is not a rock star in China

For a number of reasons, and in no small part due to the careful controls on media, China’s citizenry rarely gets too excited about the personality of a U.S. president. Former President Bill Clinton may have been an exception, in part because he was lauded for pushing China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. 

In contrast to parts of Europe, Africa and elsewhere, the response to the latest American president has been downright tepid in some Chinese circles, and muted in most. His natural supporters in China — human rights activists and other government critics — were deflated about Obama right from the start of his term when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that human rights would not be part of the overall economic dialogue as in years past. The two sides have, however, restarted their dialogue on human rights after a two-year hiatus.

Obama’s dealings with China have been marred by the failed climate change talks in Copenhagen and an escalating series of trade spats and the Obama administration has toughened its tone on China in recent months. This week’s meeting should provide a window into current attitudes.

3. The currency kerfuffle is nothing new