Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: How the U.S.-China Relationship Needs to Change





[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know(published in April by Oxford University Press). A co-founder and regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read, and a co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, he has contributed commentaries and reviews to various newspapers and to magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the Nation.]

Whenever a Chinese leader goes to the U.S. for a summit with an American President, you can assume that several things will happen. There will be allusions to the 1979 meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter, the first such meeting to take place in the U.S. There will be speeches calling for the two countries to find common ground despite different histories, values and political systems. The U.S. media will debate whether the White House is showing too much deference to the head of a brutal regime. The Chinese media will stress the respect a leader from Beijing is being accorded by the world's most powerful country — still true, despite the talk of America's decline. And then Henry Kissinger will get into the picture.

All of these things came to pass once again when President Hu called on President Obama in Washington. But take away the bromides and the benchmark of 1979, and what stands out is not just how much the world has changed but how far the two nations have moved away from the state of bilateral affairs during Deng's far more consequential and colorful trip across the Pacific.

In 1979, Japan made headlines by floating the idea of offering loans to cash-strapped Beijing. In 2011, of course, when debts between countries are mentioned, the focus tends to be on the huge store of U.S. Treasury bills held by China, which surged past Japan this past summer to take the spot as the world's second biggest economy. In '79, the U.S.-China relationship was still shaped largely by a shared antipathy toward — and a common desire to limit the global reach of — the Soviet Union. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that country's disappearance....


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