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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.

Last summer, Washington said that the United States had a "national interest" in resolving territorial claims in the South China Sea. That was a response to China's description of its claim over nearly all of the disputed South China Sea as a "core interest" on par with Taiwan and Tibet. It was the first time China had used that language. Later last year, the United States dispatched aircraft carriers and conducted massive military exercises near Chinese waters, in response to North Korea's provocations.

Li said China would likely press the United States for a statement of principles to stabilize bilateral relations. China was especially concerned about U.S. wooing of new "strategic partners" in Asia, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India, he said.

"China's decision-makers may have concluded that the U.S. is trying harder to encircle China," Li said. "Their concern is to forestall this from moving forward." He said China's wish-list included a U.S. statement that Washington would respect China's "core interests," but he thought that was unlikely to happen. "I doubt America would go that far."

Li also rejected any simple labels for the U.S. and China's hot-and-cold relations. "It's so complicated, there's really no single term or phrase to characterize this bilateral relationship," he said. "I use the term 'cooperative competitor.' There’s a lot of cooperation, a lot of collaboration, but also a lot of competition and rivalry."

The American public seems to agree. In Pew's polling last year, it found that 49 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, with just 36 percent having an unfavorable view. And in a new Pew poll released last week, most Americans said China was a "serious problem, but not an adversary." They said the U.S. military was far more powerful than China's.

But Americans wrongly dubbed China the world's top economic power (the U.S. economy is more than twice the size of China's), and called China the country representing the "greatest danger" to the United States (just ahead of North Korea).

In terms of priorities for policy toward China, Americans put "build a stronger relationship" at the top of their list, with "get tough with China on trade and economic issues" second. Human rights and environmental concerns were a distant third and fourth.

The wisdom of the American people seems to be saying: Keep your friends close, but your frenemies closer.