Is China a friend or an enemy of the US?

Is China a friend or an enemy of the US?
PHOTO: AFP

"Frenemy" is English slang for a person who pretends to be a friend but takes hostile actions. It is made by blending "friend" and "enemy."

The term was cited at a symposium held in July by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington to describe the current relations between the United States and China.

So far, expressions such as "stakeholders" and "relationship of competition and cooperation" have been used to describe US-Chinese relations. But "frenemy" expresses US distrust of China stronger than these other terms, considering that the country is an enemy in a way.

The context for such changes of expression no doubt includes hegemonic acts by China, including its land reclamation projects to build artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The US government has said it had "candid discussions" with the Chinese side, on land reclamation in the South China Sea and cyber-attacks, at a meeting of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in late June in Washington. US representatives also said the United States did not agree with using "new type of major country relations" at this time, though the Chinese wanted to use the term and it was used in past documents on the S&EDs until last year.

However, it is still too early to think that US President Barack Obama's administration will adopt a dramatically tougher policy toward China.

The US and Chinese governments announced an agreement to enhance strategic cooperation on 127 outcomes of the S&ED.

"The United States of America is not only well-positioned to thrive, but to contribute to the economic growth of the entire world," US Vice President Joe Baiden stressed in a speech made in the same week when the S&ED was held. "And the single most important relationship for that is China."

This speech hints at the intention of the Obama administration to maintain constructive relations with Beijing to make Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States in September a success.

The success of Xi's visit to the United States must be essential for Beijing, too. However, shortly after the latest S&ED, China began new oil drilling at a location close to Vietnam in the South China Sea. A Chinese ship also rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat operating in nearby waters, sinking them.

"I think the Chinese have determined that the Obama administration is not likely to challenge China in the South China Sea, as long as China doesn't use military force," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and China expert at CSIS.

"I think that this [Xi's tougher diplomatic stance] is driven in part by capabilities and power, and in part by the perception that the US needs China's cooperation more than it has in the past," she continued. "For many years, the Chinese said, 'China needs the US more than the US needs China.' I think that changed in about 2009, the onset of the global financial crisis."

If her analysis is correct, Beijing is taking unfair advantage of the United States. Its acts in the South China Sea seem to be forcing the United States to accept a new type of major-country relations asserted by China.

Obama welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe like a true friend when he visited Washington at the end of April. Is Obama going to treat Xi, who is scheduled to visit the United States in September, as a close friend or a business partner? Or is he going to assume a harsh attitude with the Chinese president, treating him like a troublemaker trying to change the status quo in Asia with force? Friends of the United States in Asia are watching closely.

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