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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."

Sino-U.S. ties hit new snag over Internet issues

January 24, 2010

Web censorship and alleged hacking by China, as
underscored by Google's recent complaint, have
further soured relations between the nations.
By Paul Richter and David Pierson
The Los Angeles Times
January 23, 2010

Reporting from Washington and Beijing - The
U.S.-Chinese relationship, already being tested
by rising trade tension during President Obama's
first year, has been rocked by new turbulence as
the administration has sought to prove its
commitment to human rights around the world.

The two governments are at odds over planned U.S.
arms sales to Taiwan, American overtures to Tibet
and, now, the issue of Internet freedom that has
been vividly raised by allegations against China from Google.

After Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
complained in Cold War terms on Thursday about
China's Internet intrusions, Chinese officials
shot back Friday that her remarks were "harmful
to Sino-American relations" and demanded that
U.S. officials "respect the truth."

The exchange set off a diplomatic shuffle. Top
U.S. and Chinese officials have huddled in a
series of hastily convened meetings in Washington
since Clinton's speech to discuss the Google
issue and "the broader aspects of our
relationship," Philip J. Crowley, chief State
Department spokesman, said Friday.

Some experts believe that Clinton may have been
too provocative when, in Churchillian tones, she
lamented that "a new information curtain is
descending over much of the world." But her
remarks, in a major prepared address, highlighted
the Obama administration's hardening approach.

It comes at a time when Beijing has been
increasingly resistant to foreign pressure. In
addition to its stern posture on Tibet and
Taiwan, China has rebuffed calls to revalue its
currency and support a global climate change treaty.

"We're in for tough sledding for the rest of the
year," predicted David M. Lampton, director of
China studies at Johns Hopkins University's
School of Advanced International Studies.

Diplomats and analysts worry that the expanding
array of disputes could damage chances of Chinese
cooperation on key U.S. strategic issues, such as
sanctions against Iran, North Korea's nuclear
program and the international effort in Afghanistan.

Analysts said the new frictions could affect
cooperation between the two nations' militaries,
an initiative announced by President Obama in a
visit to China in November. They also could
prompt the Chinese to rethink plans to take part
in high-level meetings, such as Obama's planned
nuclear security conference this spring.

Last year, Obama administration officials, eager
to begin their relationship with China on a
positive note, focused their early discussions on
areas of mutual interest while putting off
tougher issues. But the relationship took a turn
for the worse, in the Chinese view, after the
U.S. imposed duties on Chinese tires and steel
pipes. Sensitive issues, such as the U.S.
relationship with Taiwan and Tibet, continued to stack up.

Meanwhile, the administration has been criticized
by human rights advocates for not pushing more
forcefully in its dealings with China and other countries, such as Iran.

The criticism comes as Obama has faced other
questions concerning international diplomacy, and
it coincides with the approach of midterm
elections. Meanwhile, the Chinese, too, have
begun to think about a big political event: their
2012 party congress, when a new leader will be chosen.

"With an election period coming up, nobody wants
to appear unduly solicitous or weak," Lampton
said. The debate over Internet freedom captured
world attention last week when Google complained
of attacks on its network from China and said it
might shut down its Chinese-language search
engine if the government didn't stop requiring that it censor searches.

But Clinton's speech was the first in which the
administration suggested that Internet freedom
would be a key plank of its foreign policy.

Clinton specifically criticized the Chinese and
others for Internet censorship. And she suggested
that defense against cyber attacks was a core
issue of mutual defense for the United States and its allies.

"This was definitely a shot across the bow," said
Charles A. Kupchan, a National Security Council
aide in the Clinton administration. "This is a
level of rhetoric vis-a-vis China that is new."

The initial Chinese reaction was to try to play
down the speech, portraying the issue as a narrow commercial dispute.

But the Foreign Ministry made an about-face
Friday, saying in a statement that the U.S.
needed to "respect the truth and to stop using
the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are expected to soon
approve the sale of billions of dollars worth of
missile defense batteries and helicopters to Taiwan.

Obama is also expected to meet this year with the
Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet,
whom the Chinese consider a separatist. Last
year, Obama declined to meet him, sparking
condemnations from human rights advocates in the United States.

Kupchan, who is now with the Council on Foreign
Relations, said that while he does not believe
the two countries are headed for a major crisis,
"there has been a certain amount of brinkmanship."

"We'll probably see in a week or two whether
we're in for a tougher period, or whether they're
uncomfortable with how the tensions have risen so
quickly, and step back," he said.

paul.richter@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com
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