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Should America and China 'pretend to be friends?'


Frenemies? Chinese and U.S. flags fly along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on Tuesday ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit.

By Eric Baculinao, NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief 

BEIJING – As Chinese President Hu Jintao embarks on his landmark state visit to the United States, there is a lot of chatter on the Internet and among academics in China about the superpowers’ meeting.

The range of opinions in China reflects the wide variety of issues that have complicated bilateral relations of late: from Taiwan, Tibet and human rights to currency, trade and military rivalry in the Asia-Pacific region.

But while the official message from Beijing is that the state visit presents a good opportunity for the two countries to meet and readjust relations, one noted scholar has bluntly called for an end to the “superficial friendship” between the two countries.

High demands
Gauging public opinion in China is never a simple task. A cursory search for “Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S.” is stopped by the Great Firewall and met with a message that “your search is blocked in accordance with relevant laws.” 

But a more creative and neutral search for “Big Boss Hu’s visit” or “President’s visit to the U.S.” gives a clue to Chinese opinions about the state visit. Many expressed concerns over economic issues.

“Let’s see how many business orders Big Boss Hu will bring to the U.S. this time,” wrote one commentator.

“The visit will be successful if the U.S. halts arms sale to Taiwan, stops pressuring China on currency issues, and lifts the ban on high-tech exports to China,” said another. “It will be a failure if only a $20 billion business deal is signed.”

Another expressed outrage over the currency issue. “The dollar-renminbi exchange rate is approaching the 6.5 level!...This shows how the ******* party is really good at fawning over the U.S.”

Key word: cooperation
Nevertheless, the official theme from Beijing seems to be acknowledging “differences” between the two countries, but emphasizing “cooperation.” Hu even weighed in himself to try to set a positive tone for his visit.

In written answers to questions from the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, Hu called for an end to the anachronistic “zero-sum Cold War mentality” in China-U.S. relations and proposed increased cooperation.

“The visit’s timing is very good after Sino-American relations experienced a year of wind and rain,” Prof. Song Guoyou of the Center for American Studies told the Dazhong-Qilu Evening News. “It’s time to adjust.” 

Fudan University professor Wu Xinbo also told the state-run Global Times newspaper that Hu’s visit “should make clear that the basic tone of Sino-U.S. relations is cooperation rather than competition or confrontation.” 

However, Beijing Institute of Technology professor Hu Xingdou, a prolific blogger on economic and political issues, was a little more skeptical of how much relations can improve.

“China-U.S. relations can never be too good or too bad,” said Hu. “They need each other but they can’t become true friends because of fundamental differences in their political and values systems,” he said. “The visit will only have short-term influence.”

Danger of ‘pretending to be friends’
But the most provocative view from China was aired by Prof. Yan Xuetong, the highly-respected director of the Institute of International Relations at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

“The visit is very important because the relationship is declining and the visit should aim to stabilize the relationship,” he told NBC News.

Still Yan, an author and expert on international security issues, argues that the policy of China and the U.S. “pretending to be friends” is destabilizing and dangerous and can only lead to miscalculations and conflict.

“Certain people might argue that the mutual delusion of friendship serves the interests of both China and the United States, but this argument lacks hard evidence and logical support,” Yan said.

“Being superficial enemies would be a better choice for China and the United States to stabilize and improve their relations if they have no way to become real friends,” Yan wrote in the Chinese Journal of International Politics late last year. “If we look in detail at the strategic interests of China and the United States, we find more confrontational and conflicting interests than common and complementary ones.”  

“To enlarge mutually favorable interests, China and the United States should give up the policy of pretending to be friends. A policy of clarity serves their interests better than one that is ambiguous,” he argued.

No one hopes that China and the U.S. become real enemies, he said, but if they cannot become real friends, then “superficial enmity” is more stabilizing than “superficial friendship.”

“Inconsistency between knowledge and the reality is a main destabilizing factor in bilateral relations,” he warned.

NBC News researcher He Xin contributed to this report.