By Daniel Gearin
China is backing away from last year’s assertive posture. Whatever the reason, the US shouldn’t expect a transformation in ties.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the US media’s attention during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington last month was focused on remarks he made on human rights (and the translation difficulties that occurred during his press conference with US President Barack Obama).
Unfortunately, this has meant that some of the main implications of what was said at the summit went overlooked. Indeed, recent media reports in China hint at an interesting development in Sino-US relations—the increasingly assertive face of Chinese diplomacy that has been on display, particularly over the past year, may be giving way to one of reassurance and relative restraint. Beijing, it seems, has recognized that it overplayed its hand in 2010 with its aggressive international posture, and is now trying to salvage its tattered reputation.
Even before Hu arrived in Washington, several of China’s most authoritative publications signalled Beijing’s tone was changing, with articles stressing the need for cooperation and friendly relations between China and the United States. Positive reports of the visit continued throughout the week, and the visit was accorded a level of attention by the Chinese media not seen for this kind of event in more than a decade. The People’s Daily, widely viewed as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), devoted its first two pages to the visit, while other media sources stated that Hu’s trip would prove to be as ‘historically significant’ as Deng Xiaoping’s momentous visit in 1979. The overwhelmingly positive coverage of the visit, and the degree of attention it received, reflects Beijing’s desire to smooth relations with Washington after a prolonged period of tension.
The real reasons behind the frayed relations between the two countries since Barack Obama took office aren’t entirely clear. Of course, the arms sale to Taiwan last January (followed shortly after by a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama) are obvious sources of strain. Yet, Beijing’s response to both incidents seemed uncharacteristically assertive compared with similar moves under the Bush administration. And anyway, China’s ire wasn’t reserved for the United States; its attitude also hardened toward other nations in the region and beyond. Perhaps the clearest two examples were the public berating of Japan over the detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, and Beijing’s sharp criticism of the West a couple of months later after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to political dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Image credit: Kenny Louie