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US-China summit: keep your "frenemies" close

In Washington this week, US and China will be looking to stabilize troubled relationship.

An assortment of magnets designed by Liu Mingjie, featuring images of U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and an "Oba Mao" design in which Obama's face is superimposed over Mao Zedong's. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Are the United States and China friends? Enemies? Partners? Rivals?

Ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to the United States this week, observers are struggling to define a thorny relationship that increasingly defies characterization.

Taiwan-based Next Animation may have done best when it dubbed the two countries "frenemies." One blogger suggested the clunkier "parvals." But even those fall short.

"I don't want to use simple words," said China-U.S. relations expert Shi Yinhong, when asked to define ties between the two countries. "The U.S. and China have a relationship which is complex. But compared to the past, I think the strategic rivalry is increasing."

Last year the two countries grappled with a long list of issues that bedeviled relations: How to deal with North Korea, the value of China's currency, a massive trade gap, the South China Sea, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, climate change and the Dalai Lama, just for starters.

Shi, from Beijing's Renmin University, said China's priority during the U.S. visit will be to "stabilize" relations after that turbulent period. But he doubted there will be any "historic breakthroughs" on the big problems.

He downplayed talk of a joint statement or declaration to guide U.S.-China relations, as suggested by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

"Dr. Brzezinski is very old and doesn't necessarily have a very strong influence on the U.S. government, so I don't think a joint statement is most important," said Shi. "Maybe they [the U.S. and China] will launch some statements, but they can only play a very limited role, because the substantial points are not being solved, or even dealt with."

For Shi, Presidents Hu and Obama should take steps to improve Chinese public opinion toward the United States, which he said had soured in recent months. "Beginning last year, the Chinese public has had a bad opinion of the U.S.," he said. "The Chinese people feel that the U.S. has not treated China as a strategic power, it only sees China as a financial great power, who can lend money to the U.S."

Shi's comments seemed to clash with polls conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That poll found that 58 percent of Chinese had a favorable attitude toward the U.S., up from just 34 percent in 2007. Only 37 percent had an unfavorable view.

But Shi dismissed those numbers, saying "I don't think such polls are very accurate." Others agreed.

Li Mingjiang, an expert on China-U.S. ties at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the poll was conducted before two major events: the war of words last summer over the South China Sea, and huge U.S. military deployments near Chinese waters.

Those two developments were "alarming" for China, he said. "If you did another survey now, the 'favorable' opinion would probably decline quite a lot."