Ahead of Talks, U.S. Official Is Warm, Fuzzy on China

Though a top U.S. official sounds upbeat tone, some see an increasingly bellicose Beijing.

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Chinese unwind a large Chinese flag in Beijing, China Monday Nov. 20, 2006. The flag said to measure 23.1 meters (about 75 feet) long and 15.4 meters (about 50 feet) wide was made with 2004 red Chinese young pioneers scarves. The school who organized the event plans to apply their project to the Guinness World Record.

As senior U.S. diplomats prepare for a high-level summit next month with Asian leaders, the Obama administration is sounding a warm-and-fuzzy tone toward China, its biggest rival there.

Chinese officials and state-run media in recent weeks have had harsh words for Washington. One Beijing-controlled major newspaper declared in an editorial, for instance, that disagreements over the South China Sea are between China and its neighbors. "They are none of America's business, and China will not allow the US to insert itself," declared the People's Daily.

But as U.S. officials prepare for the 2012 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit meeting in Cambodia, Kurt Campbell, the State Department's point man for Asia-Pacific issues, is sounding a far more conciliatory tone toward Beijing.

U.S. officials want to use the Cambodia summit to show Washington is "committed" to building a "strong partnership with China," Campbell said during a conference in Washington.

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Too often in the region and around the globe "there is a concern that Southeast Asia will become [an] area of dangerous strategic competition" between the U.S. and China, Campbell said.

The senior State Department official then went on to list a number of partnerships Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart are slated to unveil at the conference. That list includes working together on things like wildlife protection and humanitarian relief efforts.

Campbell acknowledged "we will have differences and there are areas where we will naturally complete." But he quickly added that the ASEAN summit will show "we want to build a strong...partnership with China--and you will see more of that going forward.

Though some in Washington see Beijing as the U.S.'s top economic and military foe for decades to come, Campbell's rhetoric is hardly the stuff of Cold War-era mutually assured destruction warnings.

The upbeat U.S. tone comes at a time when "Beijing is reinforcing a message of growing antagonism toward the U.S. and its allies," Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation wrote in a recent white paper.

A string of statements from senior officials and editorials in state-run publications ahead of the ASEAN summit suggests "Beijing is implicitly posing a choice to the region: America or the PRC," Cheng wrote, using shorthand for the Asian giant's formal name: the People's Republic of China.

"This is problematic, as east Asia as a whole would prefer not to choose between Beijing and Washington for both security and economic reasons," Cheng writes. "No one in the region would benefit from the tensions of a new Cold War, and the interlinking economies would almost certainly be hurt. Yet, by arguing that China should draw a line, or that [its neighbors] should choose a "godfather," it is Beijing--not Washington--that is forcing such a choice on east Asian states."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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