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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Op-Ed: Growing Pains -- The Truth About Sino-US Relations

February 9, 2010

Fareed Zakaria
February 5, 2010

Despite the recent squall in U.S.-Chinese
relations, the fact remains that both countries
have powerful reasons to cooperate with one
another. These have grown over the last two
decades, something that both countries seem to
recognize. China's reaction to the Obama
administration's decision to sell arms to Taiwan
has been furious, but has mostly involved symbolic gestures.

Compare this with 1992, when the Bush Sr.
administration sent Taipei weapons, and soon
afterward Beijing reportedly sold missiles to
Pakistan and signed a nuclear-cooperation agreement with Iran.

This time China's strongest threat -- to
"retaliate" against U.S. companies involved in
arms sales -- is likely to be targeted at those
firms, like Raytheon, that have been long-time
suppliers to Taipei and as a consequence have
written off the China market. Beijing will likely
not punish the three American giants involved in
the deal: Boeing, General Electric, and United Technologies.

Similarly, Beijing's indignant reaction to
President Obama's decision to meet with the Dalai
Lama is posturing. The Chinese government could
not have been surprised. Every U.S. president in
recent memory has met with the Dalai Lama, and
Obama told China's President Hu Jintao directly
that he was going to meet with the Tibetan leader.

On Washington's part, despite Hillary Clinton's
criticisms of China over Internet freedom and
President Obama's declaration that he will get
tough with Beijing over its currency, it is
unlikely that this strong rhetoric will be
matched with equivalent actions. The United
States has few arrows in its quiver, and the
administration knows well that public admonition
of Beijing rarely works. In fact, both countries
might well be playing the same game: feigning
public outrage to satisfy domestic audiences.

But there are two trends that could take a
manageable situation and make it something more
worrisome. The first is a growing perception in
China that it is no longer as reliant on the
West, and in particular the United States, as it
was. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping brought China
out of the cold by embracing America and opening
up to foreign investment. This was different from
the somewhat predatory, export-driven strategy of
Japan and South Korea. But, the China scholar
Minxin Pei argues, this was not an ideological
conversion to free-market capitalism. Ravaged by
the Cultural Revolution, Beijing desperately
needed Western managerial know-how, technology,
and capital to develop its economy.

Today, China is awash in capital, has many
topnotch local companies, and this year for the
first time, the primary engine of Chinese growth
has been its domestic market, not exports. As
China expands, that internal market will probably become its dominant concern.

A similar reality applies in foreign policy. Mao
restored relations with the United States in some
measure to buy himself an ally against the Soviet
Union. China has needed the United States as a
political ally ever since; Jiang Zemin's fuzzy
embrace of the United States was part of a
strategy whose goal was concrete: membership in
the World Trade Organization. Today, China
commands respect across the globe. It is
confident, even cocky, in bilateral and multilateral fora.

None of this is nefarious. But Beijing's newfound
arrogance is not joined with a broader vision.
The country does not appear ready to play a
global role. In international summits Beijing has
been largely focused on pursuing its interests in
a fairly narrow sense. At the April G20 summit,
for example, China participated actively on only
one issue: to make sure that Hong Kong was kept
off the list of offshore tax havens being
investigated. Perhaps it's too soon to expect
China to play a broader role, taking on
responsibilities for global order and making
concessions for broader interests. But given its
impact on the global system, this is likely to
produce paralysis on several fronts. American
isolationism during the 1920s was understandable,
too, but it had unhappy effects on the world.

The second factor that could exacerbate Sino-U.S.
tensions is America's economic fate. Right now
there's great fear that the U.S. economy is in
deep structural decline. If American politicians
cannot muster up the courage to make the U.S.
economy competitive again, and Beijing perceives
that it is dealing with a superpower in
inexorable decline, relations between China and
America will change fundamentally. Of course, if
that happens, America will have plenty else to worry about as well.
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