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OP-ED: The Tension Is Overstated

February 18, 2010

I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
February 17, 2010

The state of the U.S.-China relationship exhibits
classic symptoms of a bipolar disorder -- sudden
and dramatic swings between euphoria and
depression. Barely three months ago, when
President Obama was feted in Beijing, it was
euphoria. At the moment, when Beijing hurls
insults at Washington almost daily, it is decidedly depression.

The rapid downturn in a relationship that was,
until recently, marked by cordiality and
tranquility has led many to worry about another
extreme: a qualitative deterioration and eventually a full-fledged rivalry.

Such fears are overblown, in the same way that
recent talks of a close-knit U.S.-China strategic
partnership (a.k.a. G-2) were premature and naïve.

In many ways, the sudden worsening of ties
between Beijing and Washington really means that
U.S.-China relations are returning to "normalcy."
Because of the deep and unbridgeable differences
between the two countries in terms of their
political values, conceptions of international
order and geopolitical interests, constant
frictions, even minor conflicts, should be the
rule. Chumminess and absence of tensions, as
displayed during Mr. Obama’s first year in office, are actually the exception.

Additionally, the downturn in ties also reflects
two important policy adjustments by President
Obama. First, a tough stance toward China is part
of an overall hardening of his foreign policy.
China is not getting special treatment. Second,
the Obama administration has specific reasons to
be less accommodating to China because of
Beijing’s recent assertiveness, such as its
uncooperative behavior at the Copenhagen climate
change summit, obstructionism on sanctions
against Iran, and intensified repression of dissent at home.

Some worry that Beijing will respond to
Washington’s policy adjustments with retaliation,
thus initiating a vicious cycle.

While it is true that the Chinese government has
turned up its blustering several notches, we
should learn to tell bark from bite. Other than
canceling its military exchange program with the
U.S., which is not viewed as productive in any
case, China’s retaliations are mostly rhetorical
and symbolic. The real test, of course, will be
Iran. If Beijing single-handedly blocks sanctions
against Tehran at the United Nations Security
Council, that would be serious. But Chinese
leaders must also know that they will surely face
the united wrath of the United States and Europe,
a prospect no smart mandarins in China relish.

There are additional grounds for cautious
optimism. The two countries are now so
economically intertwined that a major disruption
in their political relationship could severely
damage their respective economic interests, a
price neither wants to pay. Economic
interdependence also means that neither China nor
the U.S. can hurt the other without harming
itself. In spite of the heated words in the
official Chinese press, it is reassuring to note
that Beijing and Washington are merely fighting
the same old fights: Taiwan, Tibet and human
rights. Both sides are familiar with the ground
rules for these disputes and, so far, have observed them.

Some worry that Chinese leaders may have such
hubris that they will assert themselves with
unusual aggressiveness. On the surface, that
sounds plausible. However, Beijing’s rulers are
ruthless, but cautious, realists. It is unlikely
that they have deluded themselves into believing
that they are now strong enough to stare down the
U.S. Most importantly, acutely aware of their own
domestic frailties, they understand that a costly
confrontation with America will endanger their hold on power.

What lies ahead should be familiar to China
watchers: After the huffing and puffing is over,
Beijing and Washington will start repairing the
damage. As for the rest of the world, it had
better get used to frequent, but controlled, rows
between China and the United States.

* Minxin Pei is a professor of government at
Claremont McKenna College and a senior associate
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
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