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U.S. and China: When giants meet

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN

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Official: China not a threat to U.S.
  • Chinese President visiting Barack Obama next week
  • Senior Chinese diplomat says biggest U.S. misconception is regarding China as a threat
  • Cui Tiankai dismisses concerns about military spending and the economy
  • U.S. will focus on Iran, North Korea and currency and trade

Editor's Note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- When U.S. President Richard Nixon first visited China in 1972, I happened to be in China, working on a state farm in Hunan province. I remember being so stunned by the news.

The American president was a stout enemy of Communism. I found it incredible that Nixon would be in Beijing, shaking hands with Chairman Mao.

Speaking at a banquet in Beijing, Nixon hailed the beginning of a new era in China-U.S. relations. That was another shocker to my incredulous Chinese friends who stood around a tiny radio, listening to translation of his speech.

Only days earlier, these farmers were singing revolutionary songs and chanting: "Down with U.S. imperialism!" No permanent enemies, we reminded ourselves, only permanent national interests.

But Nixon's momentous journey in 1972 opened the door to diplomatic ties and helped precipitate subsequent changes in China and the world.

Dramatic changes are evident in how China perceives President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States next week.

"Compared to Nixon's visit, this upcoming visit won't be that dramatic," China's vice minister of foreign affairs, Cui Tiankai said in an exclusive interview with CNN.

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"We now have normal relations, frequent exchanges and intensive coordination. This visit will build on very sound basis and provide a clear direction for the future. It will give our people great hope and the rest of world reassurance that China and the U.S. will work together to address common concerns."

Cui, 58, is China's point-person on America. Fluent in English, he has spent seven years in Chinese diplomatic missions in the U.S.

"What do you think is the most common misperception of China among Americans?" I asked.

"It's the so-called China threat," he said. "I really do not understand why some people in the U.S. believe that China is posing a threat to the U.S.

"China's development has offered great opportunities to the U.S. When the international financial crisis came, China's economy played a great role to restore global economic growth."

The United States is the unchallenged world superpower, but its clout has declined in recent years, bogged down by economic crisis at home and military conflicts overseas.

China is catching up, its firepower backed by economic clout. China is boosting its military capacity and increasing its diplomatic and economic reach into Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In the past few months, it has formed closer ties to Europe.

How does the United States deal with this?

"China has become increasingly confident and assertive in recent years," notes Willem van Kemanade, a Dutch writer based in Beijing. "The U.S. had better get used to that."

When Hu Jintao sits down with President Barack Obama next week, both sides will be bringing tough issues to the table.

China is especially upset over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing considers the island a breakaway province that is part of China. Lately it has stressed peaceful reunification while warning that independence for Taiwan will not be tolerated.

Washington irked Beijing last year when it approved the sale of a $6.4 billion package of arms to Taiwan. China protested, saying it was an "interference in China's internal affairs" and noting that it comes at a time when the mainland's relations with Taiwan have warmed. In protest, Beijing suspended military exchanges with the United States.

China earlier this week hosted a long-postponed visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, marking the resumption of military exchanges. But mistrust lingers.

In its 2009 budget, China allocated a 14.9 percent rise in military spending to $70.3 billion. Some observers say actual Chinese military spending is much higher.

David Zweig, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science Technology, said: "As China's need for imported oil grows, it has to think about ways to protect its own sea lanes. Does it build a blue-water navy, does it build aircraft carriers, expand its naval presence around the world? There are now people in China who are advocating that."

Cui dismisses such concerns. "China's military expenditure is very, very small compared to the military expenditure of the United States," he said. "So the U.S. has nothing to worry about. China follows a defensive defense policy. China does not threaten anyone."

So why, I asked, does China need to develop aircraft carriers and stealth jet-fighters?

"May I ask you," he retorted, "why do you have so many [of them]? We still don't have them. We are only developing."

Other bread-and-butter irritants could crop up. The U.S. complains that China is undercutting American exports and stealing American jobs by keeping its currency artificially low.

Is China ready to act to placate its critics in Washington?

"The value of China's currency is determined by the market fundamentals, not by any politicians," Cui replied. "This has nothing to do with the economic difficulties the U.S. might have for the time being. We will continue our currency reform but it will be determined by China's economic development, not by politicians."

No big breakthroughs are expected from the summit. Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at The Nixon Center, said: "The relationship is being updated, but the U.S. is focusing on Iran, North Korea and currency and trade as topics for the summit, so there is little likelihood that there will be dramatic progress on any one item."

Cui is optimistic about the chemistry between Hu and Obama. "They have a very good working relationship," he said. "Every time they met, they spent longer time than planned. That means they have very substantive discussion and are both very serious about our relationship."

Just as Nixon and Mao did 39 years ago, China's diplomats hope Hu Jintao and Obama can turn competition into a peaceful coexistence.

Read last week's "Jaime's China" about smoking and health.

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