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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
China-US relations blow hot and cold
As China's President Hu Jintao makes his first formal visit to the White House, BBC Beijing correspondent Daniel Griffiths looks at how Chinese attitudes towards the US are changing.

There was blues playing on the radio as my taxi driver Peng Xingfa weaved his way through Beijing's congested streets.

A biker adjusts his side mirror with a passenger in the side-car as people gather for the opening of Beijing Harley-Davidson's first authorized dealership in Beijing, 08 April 2006.
China's new rich are chasing the American Dream

At the height of the Cold War that music would have been banned here - China and the US were sworn enemies.

And Mr Peng still sounded a bit suspicious.

"Relations between our two countries aren't bad," he said. "It's just that America likes to see itself as number one in the world. It uses military force against other countries instead of peaceful means."

For much of the Cold War, Chairman Mao Zedong considered the US his biggest rival and the Soviet Union his main ally.

But when relations between Beijing and Moscow cooled in the late 1960s, China turned to Washington. President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972.

Since then attitudes have changed - especially among the country's new rich.

My taxi's destination was China's first Harley Davidson showroom.

When I arrived, there were already are a few customers checking out these iconic American motorbikes.

Zhou Chi (L) chairman of Shanghai Airlines, and Glenn Tilton, CEO of United Airlines after signing a new code-sharing agreement and co-operation deal, Shanghai 21 March 2006
Economic co-operation is both a bond and an irritant

Manager Hollis Chao pointed out his favourite model - a huge bike called Screaming Eagle Fat Boy, which is red and purple with a lot of chrome and leather thrown in. The price tag - a cool $50,000 (28,000).

Mr Chao said customers wanted the bike as a symbol of success, but also because buying a Harley is like owning their own piece of the American Dream.

So China's big spenders want the American lifestyle, but they are also making a lot of money doing business with the US.

Trade between America and China is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and almost one-third of all Chinese exports go there every year.

One company hoping to get into the US is Aigo. They make the next generation of high-tech products like MP4 players.

They are already big in China and this year they want to crack the American market. This is about boosting profits but Aigo executive, Jennifer Kung, says it is also about prestige.

"When we think of the international market we are really thinking of America," she said, "and that's the same for many hi-tech companies in China."

A lot of people think that the US is trying to contain China, or at least to balance China
Tao Wenzhao, analyst

But that desire to get into the US is causing problems.

There is growing anger in Washington about the record trade deficit with Beijing. American politicians say China's currency, the yuan, is undervalued, giving Chinese exports an unfair advantage. And they are also unhappy about rampant intellectual property piracy in China.

But Shi Yinhong, a foreign relations expert based in Beijing, said that despite these differences there was too much at stake for either country to risk a damaging trade war.

"The US economically has a very important relationship with China and China depends on trade with the United States and depends on US investment, and also the US depends on China's market," he said.

But he said Chinese officials were feeling the heat at the moment.

"I think they are becoming worried because for good or bad, for justified or unjustified reasons, America has been complaining a lot and is even a little angry.

"These kind of feelings have a possibility to lead to some kind of systematic protection legislation against China that will hurt China's economy."

Security fears

And on both sides of the Pacific there are other concerns. The US is worried about China's growing military power.

Beijing fears that Washington might intervene in any dispute over the future of Taiwan. It considers Taiwan part of China and has threatened to use force if the island declares formal independence.

Tao Wenzhao, an expert on US-Chinese relations with close links to Beijing's policy makers, tells me that China still has some suspicions.

"A lot of people think that the US is trying to contain China, or at least to balance China." But he said there was growing realisation the two countries were becoming increasingly interdependent.

"Mutual suspicion does exist but at the same time we are strengthening our mutual trust. Although we have differences the relationship is on the right track. Our two presidents can meet from time to time.

"They can candidly and frankly discuss any issues and move our relationship forward."

Driving back in the taxi through Beijing's evening traffic - past McDonald's, past Starbucks - it is clear that things have changed dramatically over the past three decades.

Links between these two countries have evolved into a mixture of co-operation and competition.

Beijing and Washington know their futures are interwoven. As they head into the 21st Century, the real challenge for both sides is keeping this complex relationship on track.

Chinese president begins US tour
19 Apr 06 |  Business
Q&A: Hu Jintao's visit to the US
17 Apr 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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