As Presidents Obama and Hu meet this week in Washington, mutual distrust hampers their cooperation on pressing international issues. Paul Haenle looks at the fears on both sides and explains that open communication between the governments and militaries can help overcome suspicions and create opportunities to tackle the world’s most critical problems, from the global economic crisis to stability on the Korean peninsula.

Haenle, who played a key role for the White House in the U.S. negotiating team at the Six-Party Talks from 2007 to 2009, says that neither country can solve tough global issues without the other. When looking at the North Korea issue, Haenle argues that China’s policy over the past year likely contributed to instability. By refusing to take a clear stance on North Korea’s provocative behavior, Beijing has allowed Pyongyang to exploit differences between China and the other members of the Six-Party Talks.

How critical is the timing of President Hu’s trip to Washington?

President Hu’s trip to Washington comes after a year of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

When President Obama took office in 2009, his administration worked to build on the significant progress made in U.S.-China relations during the administration of George W. Bush. In the first year, Obama avoided a number of difficult or contentious issues in the hopes of establishing a positive atmosphere and securing Chinese cooperation on America’s foreign policy priorities, including sanctions to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, climate change, and the global economic recovery.

After Obama’s trip to China at the end of 2009, however, Washington was frustrated by the lack of progress in gaining Beijing’s support. There was a growing conclusion in the United States that China wasn’t responding in kind to early American gestures and a feeling that Beijing may have concluded—in the aftermath of the financial crisis, as China recovered quickly and the West continued to struggle—that this period represented a window of opportunity for China to push for concessions on issues important to China, including Taiwan and Tibet.

So in 2010, the Obama administration adjusted its approach to China by taking a more straightforward, assertive stance toward China. The United States moved forward with arms sales to Taiwan, Obama met with the Dalai Lama, and later in the year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to mediate rows between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically important islands in the South China Sea, rebuking Beijing’s insistence that the disputes must be handled bilaterally in Asia.

Moreover, 2010 was not a good year for China’s foreign policy. Beijing suffered a number of major diplomatic setbacks that caused friction in relations with several of its neighbors, most notably Japan and South Korea. In September, Japan detained the Chinese captain of a trawling vessel accused of deliberately ramming two patrol vessels near disputed islands in the East China Sea. There was a sense during this incident that China’s response—including cutting off ministerial-level contact—was disproportionate.

In March, after North Korea sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan and killed 46 sailors, Beijing refused to look at the evidence and condemn Pyongyang’s aggressive actions. There was a growing narrative in the international community by the end of 2010 that China wasn’t playing a productive role on North Korea.

President Obama will have an opportunity during Hu’s visit to engage him in candid and open discussions on the North Korea issue. It will be important for the two leaders to build trust and find a way going forward where the two countries can be more unified in their response to future provocative and dangerous behavior from North Korea. U.S.-China cooperation on North Korea will be critical to achieving the common objectives of North Korean denuclearization and stability on the Korean peninsula.

What does China hope to gain from the visit?

China already achieved one of its most important goals for the visit before Hu even arrived in the United States. The symbolism of an official state visit—something that was denied to Hu when he travelled to Washington in 2006—is incredibly important to China. In addition to the welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, a 21-gun salute, and a meeting in the Oval Office, President Hu will also be treated to a state dinner in the White House, something he did not receive in 2006 when he met with President Bush.

This aspect is important to the Chinese, as they want the symbolic treatment that they see as deserving of a Chinese leader. They want to get as much as they can in terms of protocol and symbolism. And with Hu stepping down in 2012, a successful visit to the United States will help cement his legacy.

How can both sides work together to reduce mistrust?

There is mistrust on both sides of the relationship. There are accusations in China that the United States is trying to stifle China’s rise. And there are American fears that China is looking to push the United States out of the Pacific region and replace it as the dominant global leader.

The two sides need to identify why these perceptions exist and work to build trust. It’s essential to create open communication and exchanges at all levels—high-level, mid-level, military-to-military, and between the next generation of American and Chinese leaders. Building these types of relationships over the long term will help alleviate mutual distrust. 

What are the most important issues coming out of the summit? What are the challenges ahead in the relationship?

These summits are repeatedly saddled with high—and often unrealistic—expectations. And even if the visit is successful, there will always be challenges to bilateral relations going forward. While there won’t be major breakthroughs, Obama and Hu will have a chance to establish important rapport and engage in a candid and open dialogue that will allow them to better handle confrontation in the future and find ways to cooperate in the face of heated domestic political environments.

The two countries have faced several crises over the last couple of decades—including Chinese missile tests in the Taiwan Straits in 1996, the U.S. accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and a mid-air collision between an American surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001. Despite these challenges, the two countries managed to work through these periods of uncertainty and challenges, sustain the relationship, and even improve the overall U.S.-China relationship. Each country determined that improving relations with the other is very much in its own interest and so it persevered to work through these challenges. But the challenges they have faced over the past thirty years have largely been bilateral in nature—not global.

Today, however, U.S. and Chinese strategic interests are converging and are increasingly global in nature. As such, it is possible that the future of U.S.-China relations could be less defined by areas of bilateral tension and more so by areas of cooperation between our two countries. If the two leaders can find common ground on critical international issues, it will benefit not only China and the United States, but also the wider international community. This successful cooperation could, in the long run, transform the very nature of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.  

How is China’s growing military power influencing bilateral military cooperation? How well does the United States understand China’s military capabilities?

China’s military has grown significantly since the 1990s. With strong economic growth, the country naturally has devoted more resources to military spending and national defense. In many ways, this is to be expected. The problem is the lack of transparency by China about its military spending and military modernization and this is fueling concerns about Beijing’s intentions and ambitions. While the United States has a good understanding of the extent of the Chinese military’s technological advancements, there is much to be learned from China on where these capabilities fit into China’s overall strategy and doctrine.

These concerns could be alleviated through two steps. First, the United States and China should continue and expand military-to-military exchanges, which allow both sides to explain their intentions and to address misconceptions. China’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Ma Xiaotian met with Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy in December, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Beijing last week. These visits are notable signs of progress, as China had frozen military-to-military talks last year in protest over Washington’s decision to move forward with arms sales to Taiwan.

It’s important that these exchanges not be subject to the politics and the overall state of the U.S.-China relationship. This will help to ensure that during times of political tension, dialogue between the two militaries will remain open, helping to prevent dangerous escalation.

Second, the U.S. and Chinese militaries should look for opportunities to collaborate on missions that contribute to international public good. U.S. and Chinese navies have already cooperated off the coast of Somalia to address the threat of piracy—and the two sides should expand on this. By collaborating on humanitarian assistance operations, search and rescue missions, and other non-traditional activities, relationships can be established at all levels of the military-to-military relationship. This is extremely important for building trust and can help China and the United States better understand the other’s intentions.

What is Beijing’s strategy for dealing with North Korea? Is there a gap between Washington and Beijing’s policies?

In the aftermath of North Korea’s first nuclear test in the fall of 2006, there was a two-year period of relatively good cooperation between China and the United States. Beijing condemned the test and made it clear through its statements and subsequent actions that it was not pleased with North Korea’s offensive outbursts.

In the subsequent time period, we witnessed some progress—modest progress, but definitely movement in the right direction—in the Six-Party Talks. The period of relative stability in 2007 and 2008 can in large part be attributed to China’s willingness at the time to work closely with the other, more responsible, parties—the United States, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

But following the Cheonan explosion and North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year, China tried to remain impartial in its response and this created friction with the other parties. The gap between Washington and Beijing was apparent, as China remained largely quiet. With North Korea escaping UN condemnation and the domestic approval rating for South Korea’s president dropping considerably, Pyongyang saw beneficial results from its reckless actions and continued engaging in provocative behavior.

In the last few weeks, however, there have been some indications that the Chinese government has shifted its position slightly, engaging Pyongyang at high levels, which has resulted in some easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula. But it remains to be seen whether this is a long-term trend, or—as I suspect—a short-term fix to get through Hu’s visit to Washington.

It is clear that Beijing has concluded that during North Korea’s ongoing leadership succession, it’s a precarious time in the country and keeping open channels of communication allows China to be well-positioned if something happens. But if one of China’s biggest concerns is maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula, then its current policy is unlikely to accomplish this goal. Refusing to take a stance against North Korea’s provocative and dangerous behavior will only allow Pyongyang to continue exploiting divisions between the parties to gain concessions. Achieving stability and the denuclearization objectives laid out in Six-Party agreements will require China to take a unified approach with the United States and other major players.