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Beijing plays hardball with Washington

February 8, 2010

China emerges from financial crisis more
powerful, threatens sanctions over Taiwan, Dalai Lama visit
By Bill Schiller, Asia Bureau
The Washington Post
February 5, 2010

BEIJING -- The first clear sign of China's new
self-regard went on display at the unlikeliest of
venues last fall: the Frankfurt Book Fair.

A Chinese delegation had bullied fair organizers
into revoking invitations to a pre-fair event to two dissident Chinese writers.

Then, the organizers had a re-think and announced
they'd allow the dissidents after all.

At the announcement, the official Chinese
delegation rose and walked out of the hall.

"We didn't come here for a lesson in democracy,"
former Chinese ambassador Mei Zhaorong fumed to
reporters. "Those times are over."

Few outside Germany took note of China's tough, new tone then.

Now many are.

After weeks of rancorous squabbling between
Washington and Beijing over a range of issues,
one thing is clear: China is emerging on the
international stage as a stronger, tougher, more
assertive nation than at any time in recent memory.

U.S. President Barack Obama knows it well.

His government's public support for Google in a
bitter censorship wrangle; America's intent to
ship billions of dollars worth of weapons to
Taiwan; and a planned U.S. presidential meeting
with the Dalai Lama, have all been met by Beijing with a barrage of threats.

Joint military meetings between the U.S. and
China have been cancelled. Sanctions against
American companies have been promised, and hints
have emerged that some official Chinese visits might be scrapped.

Obama had been hoping Chinese President Hu Jintao
would attend an international meeting on
disarmament in Washington in April. Hu has yet to commit.

Everything seemed so promising in November when
Obama swept into China on a three-day visit and
left Beijing with a joint agreement committing
both countries to working together.

The U.S. media panned the visit, saying the
Chinese too tightly controlled Obama. But
respected U.S. academics praised it for building
a detailed plan for continued co-operation. Now,
suddenly, Sino-American relations are headed south. Perhaps deep south.

In Hong Kong this week, legendary financier
George Soros weighed in, calling the clash
between China and the U.S. a matter of "grave
concern," saying co-operation between the two was critical to world order.

But only last Saturday, new U.S. ambassador to
Beijing, Jon Huntsman, was summoned to China's
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and told there would
be a price to pay if Washington delivered weapons
to Taiwan, which China regards as part of its sovereign territory.

It wasn't Huntsman's first time to be hauled in
-- and he has been in the country only five months.

Of course, rising rhetoric has always been a part
of the U.S.-China relationship, says James
McGregor, a Beijing-based business consultant and
ex-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce here.

But this is different, he says. The game changer
has been the financial crisis. While the Western
world was left shaken, China emerged more powerful.

"The world has been turned upside down," says
McGregor. "The Chinese are now feeling energized and proud."

And it happened so fast.

Western countries were preparing for a more
assertive China to emerge over the next decade.
No one thought it would happen virtually overnight.

"The balance of forces is changing far faster
than anyone predicted," says Danish political
scientist and long-time China watcher, Clemens Stubbe Ostergaard.

"Before the (Beijing) Olympics everyone believed
it was going to be gradual. People would have
time to adapt. But over the past 18 months things
have just developed so rapidly."

China's ability to survive and thrive through the
financial crisis left many Chinese feeling their
system is just better, says Stubbe Ostergaard.

While many Western countries experienced negative
growth last year, China registered a jaw-dropping
8.7 per cent increase. Though much of it was
achieved by a generous stimulus package, it
maintained jobs and, in the end, helped fuel feelings of superiority.

"There's more conflict now than before (with the
U.S.) because China is gaining more influence in
the international arena," says Yao Shujie, an
economist who heads the School of Contemporary
Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.
"The Americans want to say, `Hang on! We're still No. 1.'"

But the world's axis continues to tilt in China's favour, Yao explains.

Economic power is inexorably shifting away from
the U.S. and towards China, he says, and coming with it is power and influence.

"China is stronger now. It's more influential,"
says Yao. "And the Chinese banking sector looks
better than the Western banking system."

The Chinese are happy to co-operate with the
U.S., he stresses. But he worries that Obama is making serious missteps.

"Saving face matters to the Chinese," he says.
"But if you slap the Chinese face once, twice,
three times, four times -- that's too much."

That language underlines the stark differences in
the two nations' perception of issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is a "splittist''
bent on separating Tibet from China. For China --
which moved troops into Tibet in 1950 -- it's an "internal matter."

For the Obama administration, the Dalai Lama is a
spiritual leader seeking a measure of autonomy for Tibet within China.

If Obama goes ahead with his meeting with the
Dalai Lama, China's reaction is likely to be "very strong," says Yao.

"China will probably call off a number of high-profile visits."

Says McGregor, "China has risen to a different
place. ... It's clearly an unsettling stage in
U.S.-China relations, a new paradigm. No one is
really sure how it's going to shake out."
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