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Testing Time for U.S.-China Relations

SOURCE: AP/Chiang Ying-ying

Members of the Taiwan Air Force set up a Tien Chien II missile during a media tour at Taichung airport, in Taiwan. China criticized the U.S. Tuesday ahead of the expected announcement of new arms sales to Taiwan, the latest in a series of disputes raising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

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The Obama administration now knows how China will react when the United States does things it doesn’t like. Badly. But will it matter in the long run?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year called for “a mature [U.S.-China] relationship,” meaning that “it doesn’t go off the rails when we have differences of opinion.” But following the announcement this past week of new arms sales to Taiwan, it appears the relationship is beginning to do just that. China’s leaders have cancelled bilateral military ties, threatened to boycott American companies providing weapons to the democratic island, and preemptively decried President Obama’s impending plans to meet with the Dalai Lama.

These were all headlines to the backdrop of Google Inc.’s public denunciation of Chinese cybersnooping, which led the company to ask the super-secret U.S. National Security Agency to help combat. China will not be pleased with this news, either.

But does this mean that the United States and a seemingly more triumphant China are on a collision course? Do these events portend a new and dangerous turn in the relationship? Let’s parse China’s reactions to see what we can learn. 

Taiwan

The Chinese responded furiously to the Obama administration’s announcement Friday that it will sell Taiwan a $6.4 billion arms package. Chinese leaders called in U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman immediately following the announcement and warned the United States of “serious repercussions” if it does not reverse the decision. China followed up its reprimand by cancelling planned military exchanges and publishing a list of newly sanctioned American companies involved in the sale.

China’s punishment of American defense companies is a notable development, though some of the companies have faced discrimination for years. This most recent round marks a decisive move by China to flex its economic muscle and go after American businesses—a potentially counterproductive misstep, given that the business community is one of the largest proponents of a stronger U.S.-China relationship. With Boeing Inc. and United Technologies Corp. making up large portions of China’s domestic aviation industry (and other industries, like elevator manufacturing), China may reconsider or limit its sanctions.

The current disagreement over the arms package threatens to stall relations between the United States and China, at least for a little while. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg abruptly canceled his upcoming trip to China (as well as Japan) earlier this week, allegedly after the Chinese canceled plans in retaliation for the arms deal. It is now expected that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s upcoming trips will be postponed, too.

But contrary to popular interpretations that China’s reaction portends a new triumphalism, the unveiling of the package and China’s strident response are not new. In fact, the back and forth between the United States and China over the arms deal merely played out an already well-established routine: The United States, citing its responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act, rolls out a defensive arms package (read: no F-16 warplanes) against Chinese protests, and China’s leaders respond with cancelation of military exchanges. China has regularly cut off military contacts in order to demonstrate disapproval of U.S. actions, including after the 1995/6 Taiwan crisis, the accidental bombing of a Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and most recently, over the Bush administration’s 2008 approval of an arms package sale to Taiwan.

Dalai Lama

Similarly, the row over the impending meeting with the Dalai Lama is not particularly new either.

There was hope that the Chinese would show the same pragmatism and flexibility toward the United States as it had shown Taiwan when the Dalai Lama paid a humanitarian visit to the island last year following Typhoon Morakot. In that visit, China’s leaders tempered their disapproval and allowed the issue to drop with little repercussion for China-Taiwan relations. The unprecedented response highlighted China’s desire to throw support behind Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose cross-Strait initiative has eased tensions and brought the island commercially closer to the mainland.

A similar response seemed possible for President Obama’s meeting for a while, especially since President Obama gave Chinese leaders ample notice back in November that he intended to meet with the spiritual leader. The weeks following the presidential summit witnessed a notable silence from China on the Tibet issue. But now, it looks like a tempered response can no longer be expected.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry strongly warned President Obama Wednesday against meeting with the Dalai Lama, stating, “[w]e urge the U.S. to fully grasp the high sensitivity of the Tibetan issues, to prudently and appropriately deal with related matters, and avoid bringing further damage to China-U.S. relations.” Another Chinese official cautioned that the meeting would “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations” and “threaten trust and cooperation.”

China’s angry response could be chalked up to poor timing. Recently resumed talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives hit a snag over Tibetan autonomy when the Chinese government declared there was no possibility of the “slightest compromise” over the issue. In light of this, President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama would be perceived as support for the Tibetan case, which would give the Chinese yet another reason to be angry.

More likely, however, China’s strong warning simply resulted from the country’s long-standing position that Tibet is an inextricable part of China and that other countries should respect China’s territorial integrity. In 2007, the Chinese responded to President George W. Bush’s meeting with the Dalai Lama with histrionics: “We are furious. If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award [the Congressional Gold Medal], there must be no justice or good people in the world.” Comparable reactions followed Senator John McCain’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2008, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s meeting in the same year.

Internet censorship

Google’s surprising announcement last month that it is reconsidering its operations in China following cyber attacks on its servers brought touchy issues of censorship, human rights, and cyber security to the fore. The announcement prompted Secretary Clinton to enter the fray, where she named access to information a fundamental freedom, called on Chinese leaders to investigate the Google matter, and declared that a cyber attack on one nation “can be an attack on all.”

Clinton’s remarks triggered an indignant response from the Chinese, who called the criticisms “groundless accusations” and hit back with charges of U.S. “information imperialism.” The drama continues to unfold with few signs that China will give in to Google’s demands for the government to lift censorship of its search engine. Google is now teaming up with the National Security Agency to investigate the attacks, which will likely feed into China’s allegation that Google’s decision is part of a U.S. governmental conspiracy.

Though the Google episode broached some the most sensitive issues in the relationship, the types of challenges are not unfamiliar. Human rights have been at the heart of much discord between the United States and China since the Tiananmen massacre, and concerns of Chinese espionage—corporate and security related—have been prevalent for years. Now, the same type of security concern has manifested itself, just in a different form, though it remains unclear how much greater the stakes of a cybersecurity breach are.

Diplomatic downturns, but…

It’s clear that the United States and China are headed into rough waters for the next several months and that the relationship has not yet reached the stage in which the two countries can continue their relationship smoothly despite disagreements. As challenges abound over Iran, human rights, and China’s currency valuation, to name but a few, the near to medium future will likely see more warnings and threats of cancellations from each side, which will cause many to predict an impending collision between an increasingly triumphant China and an America weighted down in debt and overseas conflict.

But we should be cautious in trumpeting these conflicts and of feeding a dangerous narrative that has emerged about U.S.-China relations. Many of these tensions are not new, nor is the rough patch the relationship is entering. A downturn in bilateral relations under any president is nearly inevitable, as recent history has shown. It happened under the last series of U.S. presidents, from Reagan through Bush. The difference for President Obama was that he made an effort from the very beginning of his term to lay down a cooperative foundation with China, which resulted in some modest but underreported successes in his first year—joint initiatives on climate change, resumed military discussions, and China’s support on an International Atomic Energy Agency order to Iran to freeze operations at its Qom nuclear facility.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s conciliatory approach just postponed the already existing friction in U.S.-China relations. But like the times before, this rough patch will pass, too. The tone may have changed, but the challenges and shared interests ultimately remain the same.

The United States and China need each other now more than ever. China needs America’s innovation and purchasing power just as much as the United States needs China’s economic growth to boost its exports and key cooperation on important global issues. China needs American-provided stability in the Asia Pacific in order to sustain its own development, and the United States needs China’s help on pressing regional and international security issues such as North Korea, piracy, and Iran. Continuing to focus on these areas of shared interests, aligning policies where we share objectives, and working through current disagreements, no matter how long it takes is the only way forward. Global problem solving on the hardest issues is made exponentially harder without China. Our national interests require a continued partnership.

So even as the two countries brace for a bumpy ride through the next few months, it is important not to lose sight of the shared interests we have across a panoply of issues economic rebalancing, nonproliferation, climate change, and regional security. The key is not to overreact to the mercurial tone, but to stay focused on our shared interests and to keep working toward a mature relationship.

Winny Chen is a Research Associate on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Megan Adams contributed research support for the article.

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