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Susan Rice heads to China in bid to salvage relations ahead of Obama visit

Susan E. Rice makes her first visit to China Sunday as national security adviser, and it comes amid numerous uncertainties: Can President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy counselor help shore up relations between testy super powers? Can she restore credibility to Obama’s stated goal of “rebalancing” towards the Asia Pacific?

In a major speech at Georgetown University last November, Rice vowed that the Obama administration would give China and the Asia Pacific its highest attention. “No matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region,” she said.

But that was before crises in Ukraine, the Gaza Strip and Iraq reared their ugly heads. Nine months after her speech, many Asian allies view the United States as a distracted partner, caught flat-footed as China has aggressively planted its flag on disputed territories in the East and South China Seas.

While the Obama administration couldn’t have foreseen some of the foreign policy challenges it now confronts, it has left itself open to criticism that its purported Asia focus is in disarray.

Jia Qingguo, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said mutual suspicions have festered amid an absence of dialogue. Some in Beijing, he said, have advanced the idea that U.S. policy is aimed at “containing” China, just as some in Washington claim China’s core strategy is to undercut U.S. standing in the region.

“There’s been a lot of harsh rhetoric by leaders of the two countries,” said Jia. “In deepening the relationship, that kind of rhetoric is not very helpful.”

During her three-day visit to Beijing, Rice is scheduled to hold talks with her counterparts, especially State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a former foreign minister but one with a relatively low profile in the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping. During her visit, Rice “will underscore the U.S. commitment to building a productive relationship” with China ahead of Obama’s visit to Beijing in November, NSA spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Wednesday.

Along with other heads of state, Obama is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing on Nov. 10 and 11, a visit that will be closely watched across Asia. Last year, the budget standoff in Washington prompted Obama to cancel a visit to APEC, adding to the perception that Obama’s attention toward the region is fleeting.

Rice’s trip comes just weeks after a Chinese military jet aggressively intercepted a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft off the China coast. After U.S. officials called it a near collision, and blamed it on reckless intimidation tactics, China state media attempted to redirect the blame to U.S. spying.

“The U.S. should be prepared to withdraw its spy planes from China’s coastlines,” the newspaper Global Times said in an Aug. 25 editorial. “Or, there will be more clashes in the future.”

Jia, the Peking University professor, said that both countries are “paying a lot of attention” to avoiding military mishaps. He doubts the recent incident will be a top item of Rice’s talks over the next three days.

The larger issues, he said, involve territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas, cyber security, an investment treaty and opportunities for joint cooperation in resolving the Ukraine crisis and containing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. All are issues that will help Xi and Obama claim political victories when they meet face-to-face in November.

Rice, known for her strong statements on human rights while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is expected to bring up Beijing’s policies toward semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Last Sunday, China’s legislature announced that Hong Kong voters will not be allowed to nominate their own candidates to run for the city’s top job in 2017. Instead, a committee loyal to Beijing will vet and select potential candidates, a step back for democracy activists.

If she presses the Hong Kong issue, said Jia, Chinese leaders are unlikely to be receptive. “The Chinese will feel that the U.S. is intruding into a Chinese domestic issue,” he said. The two sides would be wise, he said, to focus on issues of mutual agreement such as countering climate change, trade disputes and international terrorism.

In attempting to engage the Chinese, Rice will have to overcome suspicions raised when she harshly criticized China for refusing to support international intervention in Syria in 2012. Obama in recent months hasn’t helped U.S.-Sino relations. He was quoted as calling China a “free rider” in dealing with the Iraqi crisis. China responded that it was the United States that helped create the quagmire that is now Iraq, not China.

In a speech last December on human rights, Rice praised China for its cooperation on certain security issues, including pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But she also criticized the Chinese government for its recent crackdown on political activists, including prominent lawyers once hailed by the government for exposing government corruption.

“The Chinese people are facing increasing restrictions on their freedoms of expression, assembly and association. This is short-sighted,” Rice said at the Human Rights First Annual Summit in Washington. “When people in China cannot hold public officials to account for corruption, environmental abuses, worker and consumer safety, or public health crises, problems that affect China as well as the world go unaddressed.”

Human rights activists hope Rice will continue to deliver this message, but have doubts upon hearing the White House’s lukewarm statement on goals for the trip.

“With most severe #China crackdown in years, @AmbassadorRice shouldn't only ‘contain tensions,’ ” tweeted Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, on Thursday.

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