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America's defense secretary has been in China for the past three days. Robert Gates met with his Chinese counterpart and other military officials - small steps towards building relations there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports that there are many other efforts underway to help define the constantly shifting U.S.- China relationship.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Dean Cheng, a China expert with the Heritage Foundation, says all this activity is taking place because the U.S. and China are at a pivotal junction in their relationship.
DEAN CHENG: I think that what we are seeing is an administration that is trying to reset China policy along the lines of the previous reset regarding Russian policy.
NORTHAM: Cynthia Watson, a professor of strategy at the National War College, says the Obama administration has made clear it wants a stable relationship with China.
CYNTHIA WATSON: The president has said several times, and has had other people in the administration repeat, that we want to have an ongoing relationship with China, we want to have a military to military relationship with China. We want to understand better what they're doing. We assume they want to understand better what we're doing.
NORTHAM: The Heritage Foundation's Cheng says the complex Sino-American relationship is especially dynamic now because of China's growing strength - economically, politically, and militarily. And he says the Obama administration is trying to articulate how it hopes China will use that newfound power.
CHENG: The hope here is to be able to influence China into following a path that is more transparent, one that takes into account the legitimate concerns of its neighbors, and to reach some kind of modus vivendi between Washington and Beijing. Unfortunately, China's general lack of transparency, its tendency towards secrecy, especially in the security field, makes that very hard to do.
NORTHAM: Abraham Denmark, a China specialist at the Center for a New American Security, says part of the problem is that China itself may be uncertain which direction it's heading. He says there are divisions within the ruling Communist Party and the powerful military over this issue.
ABRAHAM DENMARK: China's forward path has not been determined. We see different elements of China's approach. Sometimes China acts very positively, very constructively, sometimes exclusionary and somewhat negative and aggressive. So we're not sure what direction China is moving in.
NORTHAM: One thing that is certain: As China's power increases, so too does its expectation that the U.S. will make certain accommodations, says University of Virginia Professor Harry Harding, a long-time China watcher.
HARRY HARDING: If the United States was going to ask things of China, China was now in a position to begin to ask things of the United States, such things as agreeing to end arms sales to Taiwan, agreeing to stop having military exercises or reconnaissance missions close in to Chinese shoreline, near Chinese waters.
NORTHAM: Harding says the U.S. hasn't agreed to do any of these things. Conversely, China hasn't addressed U.S. concerns over issues such as human rights, trade imbalance and the strength of its currency. Harding says he worries those lingering, unresolved issues could fester. But he says overall the U.S.-China relationship is resilient.
HARDING: I think that there was a lot of pessimism exactly a year ago. There was a lot of concern that there was going to be a big crack-up in U.S.- China relations. Many people thought that was going to be the result of the global downturn, resulting in pretty open trade wars. That didn't happen. And I think that it shows that despite all of the differences and all of the tensions, the two countries are very highly interdependent.
NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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