U.S., China eager to gloss over any disagreements, according to Pantech Fellow Daniel Sneider

Despite chatter about "the Chinese threat" during Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent visit to Washington, neither China nor the United States seeks to confront the issues plaguing their complex relationship. Pantech fellow and San Jose Mercury News foreign affairs columnist Daniel Sneider considers the muscular side of "China's peaceful rise."

The visit of China's President Hu Jintao to the United States this week is yet another opportunity for chatter about the "Chinese threat.'' In the lead-up to his arrival, we have heard rising voices from Congress and from the administration on everything from China's currency manipulation and piracy of intellectual property to its military buildup.

Do not be deceived. There is no real appetite in either Washington or Beijing for confrontation over any of these issues, much less a serious exploration of the challenge that China presents to American global leadership.

Neither government can afford an escalation of tensions. Economically, we are too intertwined. Strip away the packaging on the $200 billion trade deficit with China and you will find American companies running global assembly lines that begin in Ohio, pass through Malaysia, and end up in southern China.

Strategically, the United States is painfully dependent on China to try to cope with the greatest security challenge in northeast Asia: North Korea's nuclear program.

Beijing is wedded to its doctrine of "China's peaceful rise.'' First formulated three years ago, it aims to keep things calm with the United States and most of its neighbors, buying time to manage the tightrope act of continuing high growth while preserving domestic stability.

In any case, Washington is too bogged down in the Middle East to do more than bark now and then about China.

"At the strategic level, the United States is really focused like a laser on the Middle East,'' and the Chinese like it that way, said Asian security expert Kurt Campbell. "They appreciate the fact that with the U.S. attention focused elsewhere, it allows China to play a larger role in Asia as a whole,'' he told a gathering last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Typically, while Washington is focused on Hu's visit, the Chinese defense minister is in the midst of an unprecedented Asian tour that will take him to North and South Korea and to Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. China's prime minister has just finished a swing through Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Cambodia.

In my own travels through Asia recently, from South Korea and Japan in the northeast down to Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong in Southeast Asia, I found a stunning growth in China's influence. The question of how to deal with China's rise is high on every agenda.

Everywhere people are looking over their shoulder, worried about China's burgeoning strength and presence. They are equally fearful that the United States is abandoning the field to China. But they also don't want to choose between these two powers.

That is even true in Japan, where the popular media and politicians are full of talk about the Chinese threat. But look a little closer and you will also find a growing counter-movement, particularly in elite policy circles, warning against becoming separated from the rest of Asia. The battle for succession to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is stepping down in the fall, is now being shaped around this issue.

The China-Japan rivalry tends to reveal the more muscular side of China's "peaceful rise,'' one that Americans rarely glimpse. In Vietnam, senior foreign policy officials recounted what happened when the Japanese came courting to gain Vietnam's backing for a resolution to give them permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, a key goal of Japan's foreign policy. Japan is Vietnam's largest aid donor and a major source of foreign investment.

China and Vietnam have a long and stormy history as neighbors, including wars that go back centuries and -- more recently -- a brief invasion in 1979 that ended in defeat for the Chinese. Relations these days are relatively good, however, fed by growing trade, heavily in China's favor.

Hu, in his role as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, sent a special envoy to talk to the leadership of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party. Sometimes, a Vietnamese official told me, the Chinese can be very indirect. Not this time. The message was simple: "Don't do it!'' The ``or else'' was left unspoken.

The Vietnamese compromised, supporting Japan's membership but refusing to co-sponsor the resolution. China was not pleased, but apparently accepted it.

For the Vietnamese, a senior official explained, they must engage in a "lot of fine balancing.'' Vietnam "can't stop engaging China'' but wants to make sure China becomes a "predictable'' power.

In Washington, when the cloud of rhetoric clears, that formula pretty much sums up the reality of U.S.-China relations, too.