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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."

China v USA: more than froth and bother

February 7, 2010

By Peter Foster
The Telegraph (UK)
February 4t, 2010

Sino-US relations, for anyone living on Mars this
past month, are going through a rough patch. So
much is undeniable, so the more interesting
question is "how rough" and does this herald a
more fundamental or strategic shift in relations?

On one level, the recent railing and ranting of
the Chinese editorial writers on Tibet and US
arms sales to Taiwan can be dismissed as the
synthetic, pro-forma rage that is to be expected on these occasions.

China’s leaders, just like Mr Obama and his
democratic senators, have to play to the home
constituency. China’s public is in no mood to be
pushed around, and the leadership knows it.

(In a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey last
year 41pc of Chinese named US as the world’s
leading power, but the same number named China in
that category. The interesting point is that that
was almost double the number who named China in
2008. Expectations are growing.)

It is also true that the economic interdependence
of the US and China means that common sense (or
‘common interests’) must in the end trump the
ephemeral satisfaction of blowing diplomatic raspberries at each other.

It’s worth remembering, as a senior foreign
diplomat observed to me this week, that for all
the recent hollering, preparations are still
going behind the scenes on for the next session
of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue between the
US and China which is to be held in May or June.

All that said, however, the sparring of the last
two months cannot be dismissed as mere frothing
and foaming. The spats are not mere surface
choppiness. They speak of deep and opposing
political, social and historical currents that,
prima facie, put the US and China on a collision course.

The point of the landmark "Joint Statement"
issued after Obama’s visit last November was that
it recognized those dangers and implicitly agreed
that avoiding a collision would necessitate both
sides focusing on commonalities, not differences.

That is why the Chinese were so enraged by
Hillary Clinton’s speech on internet censorship
which appeared to do the precise opposite,
tearing up an understanding reached only two
months previously, according to the view of one
Chinese expert on Sino-US relations I spoke with earlier this week.

 From a Chinese perspective, the
Google/censorship issue could have been ‘let lie’
as a mere trade dispute of sorts, but instead the
Obama administration did its utmost to cast it as a clash of ideologies.

When Hillary Clinton spoke of an "information
curtain" descending, she was deliberately echoing
Cold War dualities, implicitly warning Beijing
that a retreat from the world would serve modern
China no better than it did Soviet Russia or Mao’s China.

There is so much at stake here. Since Nixon’s
great embassy in 1971 the West has held its nose
and dealt with China partly out of greed, but
also in the widely held belief that engagement
was the best way to bring China into the international fold.

For the first time in a while, that understanding
is being widely questioned and not just by the leadership at Google.

There is much chatter from the European and
America chambers of commerce that China’s
hardening attitude to foreign business and
intellectual property is making many businesses
wonder if China’s still worth the candle.

It is far too early to be talking about
"strategic shifts" but not to say that western
attitudes to China are starting to change.
Opinion polling data tells you as much.

Tolerance for the excesses of an increasingly
paranoid and vindictive Communist Party leadership is wearing thin.

After the Olympics, after three decades of
‘engagement’ and opening up, China is still
slamming shut the cell doors on the likes of Liu
Xiaobo (the Charter 08 founder recently nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize), Gao Zhisheng (the
‘missing’ lawyer whose wife writes movingly in
today’s Washington Post) and most recently, as my
colleague Malcolm Moore reported yesterday, an
man who tried to highlight the impact of the 2008 melamine milks scandal.

The truth is that the world’s patience is running
out. A few years ago these kinds of actions,
while drawing protests, were contextualized in
the framework of China’s overall economic and
social development. "Give it time, China is
moving in the right direction," was the soothing cry.

But that argument is getting harder and harder to
make. Like it or not, ready or not, China is
being asked to take on a lead role in the global
club of nations and the US and Europe (like
Google) is becoming less prepared to make excuses on China’s behalf.

This is dangerous for everyone. China needs the
world, but the world also needs China. Perhaps in
five or ten years we shall look back at these
spats as nothing more than that, but with so many
fundamental underlying differences, it would be very rash to assume so.
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