How ‘Mature’ Is the U.S.-China Relationship?

Winny Chen examines how Beijing might respond to Google, a new U.S. Taiwan arms deal, and a string of human rights criticisms.

A Chinese Google user presents flowers in front of Google sign outside Google China headquarters building in Beijing on January 15, 2010. Google's recent announcement that it may pull out of China is the most immediate test of whether the U.S.-China relationship has actually become the "mature" one President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assert it is. (AP/Vincent Thian)
A Chinese Google user presents flowers in front of Google sign outside Google China headquarters building in Beijing on January 15, 2010. Google's recent announcement that it may pull out of China is the most immediate test of whether the U.S.-China relationship has actually become the "mature" one President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assert it is. (AP/Vincent Thian)

Last year was smooth sailing for U.S.-China relations. The Obama administration and China’s leaders resumed direct military-to-military dialogue, had a successful kickoff of the new Strategic and Economic Dialogue followed by a high-profile presidential summit in Beijing. The two presidents even reached a climate change agreement in Copenhagen.

But the next few months look to be the real test of whether the U.S.-China relationship has actually become the “mature” one that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assert it is.

The most immediate test is Google Inc.’s recent announcement that it may pull out of China following a “highly sophisticated and targeted” attack on its infrastructure. The attack prompted Google to issue a statement saying it would no longer censor results on its Chinese search engine and that if an agreement cannot be reached with the government on this policy, the company would consider leaving China altogether. The Chinese government rebuffed Google’s request and declared that companies operating in China must follow the country’s laws.

In his November trip to China, President Barack Obama named Internet freedom “a central human rights issue.” The State Department has called the recent hacking of Google “troubling.” And with good reason. Google’s surprising announcement is the most recent manifestation of growing tensions about Chinese cyber activity, in particular Chinese cyber assaults on U.S. businesses, infrastructure, universities, and government offices. The attacks, part of a possible larger Chinese campaign aimed at gaining commercial, military, and political advantage, has become a major concern to U.S. industries and compound already existing concerns about Chinese intellectual property theft and national security.

These developments will soon be matched in the headlines by a number of other issues that are likely to introduce friction into the relationship, one of which is the pending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The Department of Defense announced last week that it has awarded about $2 billion in contracts to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Co. for production of PAC-3 air defense missiles and a Patriot Air and Missile Defense System. The potential arms sale has prompted angry responses, including a provocative missile test, from Chinese officials who oppose the deal and have threatened serious consequences if it is completed.

Other human rights issues in China have also moved to the forefront of the relationship in the last few weeks. In December, the Chinese government sentenced prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in jail after he authored Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political liberalization in the authoritarian country. The sentencing drew international criticism from U.S. and foreign governments, human rights activists, and renowned dissidents such as Vaclav Havel. And it came just a few weeks before Freedom House released its annual survey in which the organization charged China with behaving “as if it were under siege by its own citizens.”

In addition, President Obama’s upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama could insert another strain. The president postponed his meeting with the spiritual leader until after his November summit in Beijing but notified Chinese leaders he fully intended to meet with the Dalai Lama this year. All these developments may add to the list of already existing challenges the United States and China face in areas such as security—most notably Iran—trade and economic rebalancing, and climate change.

The Obama administration remains optimistic about the potential turmoil to come. Secretary Clinton, in discussing the impending sale and human rights issues, stated, “what I’m expecting is that we actually have a mature relationship that fits the description that was given at the summit between our two presidents, that it be positive, cooperative and comprehensive. That means that it doesn’t go off the rails when we have differences of opinion.”

On the Chinese side, the verdict is still unclear. Whether the People’s Liberation Army freezes military talks in the wake of the Taiwan arms sales will give one indication of just how committed the Chinese are to maintaining a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship” with the United States. China has regularly frozen military contact to demonstrate disapproval of U.S. actions, including after the 1996 Taiwan row and the accidental bombing of a Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. More recently, China and the United States resumed high-level military contact after the Chinese froze talks over the Bush administration’s October 2008 approval of the current $6.5 billion arms sale to Taiwan. The Chinese responded this week by testing their first land-based missile defense system, a worrying sign but not a severance of communications.

There is hope that the Chinese will show the same pragmatism toward the United States as it showed Taiwan when the Dalai Lama visited the island last year. China’s reaction to the visit last August was notably muted. Chinese leaders toned down their indignation, blamed the visit on Taiwan’s opposition party, and allowed the issue to drop thereafter. The unusual move pointed to 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. In the run-up to the Dalai Lama’s meeting with President Obama, things again are all quiet on the western front; the Chinese have kept their saber-rattling to Taiwan—a good sign for the United States and Tibet for now; not so good for Taiwan.

How China proceeds on North Korea may also give insight into China’s intentions and set the tone for the next few years. In an uncommon show of leadership, China has played one of the most critical roles in working toward the verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. On more than one occasion, China has used its influence to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiating table, and most recently, China has, alongside its UN Security Council partners, followed through on its commitment to enforce sanctions on its ally North Korea. China’s willingness to maintain this level of cooperation, leadership, and close coordination with the United States over the next several months will reveal a lot about its commitment to continue working with the United States on a host of difficult shared challenges.

Whether the U.S.-China relationship has actually reached a “mature” enough stage for the two countries to continue working together through a rocky patch or whether the “mature” descriptive was asserted as an aspiration for a responsible Chinese response is still unclear. The two countries will continue to share a number of urgent, significant concerns and cannot afford to allow discord in one area to hijack the whole relationship. The most difficult global challenges cannot be solved without both the United States and China’s participation.

The United States, for its part, must continue to work constructively with China, stepping prudently down a practical course and avoiding overreaction. It will involve a fine balance between living up to our responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act and China’s unnecessary militarization of the Taiwan Strait; speaking candidly about human rights without grandstanding; and tackling new security concerns such as the pervasive cybersecurity threats emanating out of China without giving in to the temptation to retaliate. And it will involve guiding China down the path toward becoming a more responsible player on the international stage.

Ultimately, China’s reactions to all these challenges will determine if the waters of 2010 and beyond are rough or calm, and the United States must be prepared to navigate through both.

Winny Chen is a Research Associate on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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