It has been a VIP-studded few days for Beijing with over 80 heads of state in attendance at the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games last Friday. The presence or lack-thereof of foreign dignitaries at the Olympics had fuelled the frenzied analyses of geo-strategic pundits for months. While some leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy wavered regarding their decision to attend till the last minute, the one head-of-state who remained steadfast in his resolve to be pr esent at the Games ever since having announced his intention last September was United States President, George Bush.
Mr. Bush’s ongoing four-day trip to Beijing is in many ways a profound comment on the increasing delicacy of the relationship between the world’s richest nation and its fastest growing rival. This is a relationship that is marked by a burgeoning economic engagement, underlain with deep furrows of continuing suspicions but capped by an overarching pragmatism.
Mr. Bush’s tenure as President of the United States has not always been praised for his grasp of nuance. However, in this most recent chapter of Sino-U.S. ties both sides have shown a certain degree of finesse in the diplomatic tango that is being performed on the Olympics stage.
It is commonly acknowledged that for China hosting the Games is a source of national pride and an opportunity to flag the nation’s growing economic and diplomatic muscle.
The carefully calibrated manner in which Mr. Bush has attempted to accommodate and respond to these desires is indicative of the realisation that the bilateral relationship has grown too involved to risk a derailment. At the same time however, these are nations that remain polarised on a number of issues and represent fundamentally different political cultures.
The U.S. President angered many human rights groups by his refusal to link his attendance of the Olympics to China’s allegedly repressive domestic or foreign policies. Instead in the lead up to the Games, he stuck to the line espoused by the Chinese authorities that called for a separation of politics and sport. By attending the Beijing Olympics Mr. Bush created history, becoming the first U.S. president to ever attend an Olympics on foreign soil. This is a fact that sent out a strong message regarding the importance with which Washington views China.
At the same time Mr. Bush did not mince words when on the eve of the Games he called on China’s leaders to improve their human rights record. “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said. Crucially however, he spoke these words not on Chinese soil but in Thailand, saving the Chinese authorities from the loss of face they would have felt had the same speech been delivered in Beijing itself.
For their part the Chinese government responded to Mr. Bush’s comments with cold words. “We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in response.
However, once Mr. Bush landed in Beijing, he was treated with warmth. Ahead of the opening ceremony, the U.S. President and his wife were up front-and-centre with the Chinese President Hu Jintao as he led a large gathering of world leaders to a banquet room in the Great Hall of the People for lunch. There was a palpable lack of tension as Mr. Hu and Mr. Bush shook hands, exchanged greetings and posed for photographs
Despite his insistence that his presence in Beijing is purely linked to sport, the American President’s schedule also included several non-Olympics related events. Amongst these was the inauguration of the new American embassy in the Chinese capital.
The $434 million new embassy building is a sprawling glass and chrome structure spread over 500,000 square feet. It is in fact the second largest U.S. embassy in the world, after Iraq, and according to Clark T. Randt Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China, is a symbol of “the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.”
Significantly, the inauguration of the building came only a week after Chinese officials opened their own giant embassy in Washington DC, which, at 250,000 square feet, is the biggest embassy in the U.S. capital.
The reciprocal opening of the embassies demonstrates how far diplomatic and people-to-people contacts between the U.S. and China have increased, particularly under the Bush administration. In 2001, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had a staff of about 500 from 10 U.S. government agencies. Now it has 1,100 people from 26 agencies. The consular section in the new embassy will deal with about 6,000 non-immigrant visa applications every week.
China and the U.S have emerged as each other’s largest trading partners after the European Union and Canada, respectively. Bilateral trade between the countries totalled a booming $387 billion last year. Moreover, China is also the second-biggest holder of U.S. government-issued Treasury bills after Japan, and therefore a key creditor of the indebted U.S. government.
The diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Washington may be an intricate one but it is equally complex at the popular level. On the one hand young Chinese are quick to spew venom on the perceived hegemonic tendencies of the United States’ foreign policy. But they often do this while simultaneously gulping down Big Macs and fretting about admissions to U.S. universities.
It is to the United States that the majority of Chinese students studying abroad head. Conversely it is to China that an increasing number of U.S. companies from KFC and McDonalds to General Motors, look for financial salvation.
When the American Olympics team marched around the Bird’s Nest stadium during the opening ceremony for the Games, it elicited a shout of approval from the watching crowd that was second only to that reserved for the home team.
The Sino-U.S. relationship remains far from straight forward. Not only do tensions simmer over China’s massive trade surplus with America, the result according to the U.S. of an undervalued Yuan, but also on a wide-range of foreign policy issues from Iran to Sudan.
The last few years have seen the militaries of the two countries engage in a game of strategic one-upmanship. China is investing in a bigger navy, so it can protect its increasingly global economic interests and ensure a steady supply of fuel for its economy. At least partly in response, the U.S. military is redeploying resources in Asia.
That economic closeness hasn’t necessarily led to increased trust between the countries is also indicated by the anti-intelligence safeguards installed at the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Thus, while 1,500 Chinese construction workers helped build the embassy’s consular and administrative offices, the U.S. government brought in several hundred workers and tons of materials from the United States for the embassy’s eight-story main tower, where the ambassador’s office and other sensitive facilities are.
The Chinese government, for its part, seemed to have similar concerns when it used hundreds of its own workers to build its embassy in Washington, even in the face of criticism from American unions.
But despite these strains of tension, what Mr. Bush’s most recent visit to China drives home is the active search for strategies that the two nations are making in an attempt to contain and manage these tensions. In contrast to past years, the sides seem intent on preventing any single issue from disrupting overall ties, seeking instead to isolate and manage their disputes through regular “strategic dialogues.”
This maturing of the relationship is born out of necessity, a fact neatly demonstrated by the Olympics themselves. The Games reveal how what the two countries share in common binds them together while simultaneously stoking their rivalry: a burning desire, as well as the ability, to emerge at the top of the medal’s tally.
6 months ago