China never paid attention to US’ concerns: Elizabeth

Updated: Jan 19, 2011, 13:20 PM IST

Chinese President Hu Jintao is paying an "exciting and historic” visit to the US from January 19 to 21. Many tensions will be the centerpiece of Hu’s visit to Washington. The US wants China to take into consideration its concerns over undervaluation of the yuan, cooperation on Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and assurance about Chinese military’s ambitions.

For Hu Jintao, the US visit is slated to be the last as China’s President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of, an expert on US-China relations, Elizabeth C Economy, discusses Chinese President’s upcoming visit to the US, the issues to be discussed by Obama and Hu, and the Chinese military’s expansion.

Elizabeth C Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of `The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China`s Future`.

Kamna: US President Barack Obama is preparing to receive his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on January 19. Do you see any change in ties between Beijing and Washington since Obama’s state visit to China in November 2009?

Elizabeth: The most significant change in US-China relations is that last year the United States believed that it could make significant advances in the US-China relationship. Now, the White House has moved from being idealistic to realistic in its understanding of what can actually be accomplished with China given the significant gap between Chinese interests, priorities and values, and those of the United States and its allies.

Kamna: Which all issues are expected to be discussed by Hu Jintao and Barack Obama?

Elizabeth: The key issues for the summit on the US side will be the value of the renmenbi and trade imbalance, North Korea, Iran, and promoting military transparency. From the Chinese side, the issues will be Taiwan arms sales, export controls and understanding what role the United States anticipates playing in Asia.

Kamna: The US has already aired a sense of mistrust as far as China’s military spending is concerned. Of late, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said China`s rapidly developing defense capabilities are worrisome to his country. Do you think China will ever pay heed to the US’ concerns?

Elizabeth: I don’t think that China’s military has ever paid any attention to the concerns and interests of the United States. It is a bit more interested about not alarming its neighbours, but even that concern appears to be diminishing as China’s overall military capacity grows.

Kamna: Obama has repeatedly urged China to allow the yuan to find a fair market value. Do you think Hu’s visit will help the two sides resolve currency issues?

Elizabeth: I think that there will be a gradual increase in the value of the yuan over the next several years, as China’s leaders realise the dangers of inflation and the need to boost consumption by increasing real wages. As long as there is a steady appreciation in the value of yuan over time, the Obama administration will be able to stave off calls for tougher action by the Congress. I don’t think the visit of Hu Jintao will make any real difference to this issue, however.

Kamna: The US and China have, of late, tried to find a common ground on issues such as Iran and North Korea, but have not succeeded much. Obama’s strategy to deal with China needs to be readjusted. Comment.

Elizabeth: President Obama’s strategy to deal with China doesn’t need to be adjusted. I think the United States has found the right balance between trying to work cooperatively whenever possible and bringing multilateral pressure to bear when necessary. Chinese foreign policy has had a difficult year in 2010, with a series of missteps and miscalculations. It is China’s strategy that needs to be adjusted. With regard to China’s policy on North Korea, there are serious divisions among Chinese foreign policy thinkers about whether China should continue to defend North Korea at all costs. I think in the end, if North Korea continues to be a significant security risk in the region, China’s position will become more difficult and move closer to that of the United States, Japan and South Korea

Kamna: How will Hu Jintao’s US visit help chart a path for long-term bilateral ties between Washington and Beijing?

Elizabeth: I don’t think that Hu Jintao will be able to help chart a path for long-term development of US-China relations. He will be out of office next year. All eyes are on the next generation of Chinese leaders.