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Bridge to China: How to build a healthy relationship

This news story was published on February 22, 2012.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service – Chicago Tribune Editorial –

He’s got a winning personality, a wife who’s a famous singer, a taste for Hollywood movies, a daughter at Harvard and fond memories of a 1985 stay with a family in Muscatine, Iowa. Xi Jinping, the vice president and heir apparent to the top government position in China, is not the prototypical Chinese leader.

He handled himself creditably on his trip to the United States, even sitting through a trial many Americans are familiar with — a long-winded oral presentation by Vice President Joe Biden, who pointedly complained about China’s intellectual property policies and human rights record.

He didn’t take offense at demonstrators protesting his regime’s treatment of Tibet. He returned to Muscatine, where he said, “Coming here is really like coming back to home.”

All this makes him look like someone who will be more amenable to U.S. concerns, but we shouldn’t expect too much. Xi is a shrewd Communist Party functionary who can be expected to do nothing unless it serves the interests of his government. Personal compatibility may help smooth relations between nations, but only if the edges aren’t too rough to start with.

More important is his background. His father, a revolutionary leader, had the grim experience of being purged and sent to a labor camp for 16 years, and the son was exiled to the countryside as part of the insanity of the Cultural Revolution.

The elder Xi, reports The New York Times, was “instrumental in initiating China’s economic reforms, backed many of his progressive contemporaries and reportedly disagreed with the violent suppression of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.” If the son follows a similar course, it bodes well for political reform and liberalization, which are long overdue.

The more pressing issue is what course Xi will take in dealing with his neighbors and the United States. China has embarked on an ambitious military buildup, and it takes a hard line on Tibet and Taiwan. There is no doubt Beijing is willing to go to war if necessary to prevent any disadvantageous change in the status quo in either place.

It also has disputes with other East Asian nations over various islands in the South China Sea. As China grows in wealth and military capacity, it could be a menace to its smaller neighbors.

Here, the crucial thing is for Washington to leave no doubt of its resolve to remain a Pacific power — intent not on picking fights with Beijing but with preserving a regional order that has fostered peace and growth.

President Barack Obama’s announcement last year that the U.S. will station 2,500 Marines in Australia as part of a long-term commitment to the Pacific sent a useful signal to anyone who feared — or sought — a military vacuum in the region. It clearly stirred resentment in the Chinese government but doubtless came as a relief to allies.

We hope the talks between Obama and Xi gave the Chinese leader a better understanding of American goals and how they further the interests of China. An East Asia with a strong American presence is a stable East Asia, where the Chinese can pursue their own legitimate ambitions without provoking panic in nearby nations. China may actually enjoy greater freedom to operate, not less, if the U.S. continues to play a major role.

China also has an interest in responding to outside complaints about rampant intellectual piracy and trade restrictions. Last month, it got a stinging rebuke from the World Trade Organization, which ruled against its export limits on certain important raw materials. Beijing expressed regret but said it would abide by the ruling.

The two countries may never see eye-to-eye on many significant matters involving commercial relations as well as security. But if both can focus on the interests they have in common, they can limit their competition and contention to peaceful arenas. Xi’s visit should be a step in that direction.

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