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Editorial: Back and forth with Beijing

February 8, 2010

What keeps Sino-U.S. relations moving forward? Both countries need each other.
The Los Angeles Times
February 7, 2010

Walk softly and carry a message of mutual
respect. That was the Obama administration's
initial approach to China, part of a broad policy
of seeking dialogue on difficult issues with
friends and enemies alike. In that spirit,
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited
the People's Republic on her first trip abroad
and avoided public expressions of concern about
Chinese human rights abuses. President Obama put
off meeting China's nemesis, the Tibetan Dalai
Lama, ahead of his own foray to China, hoping to
focus attention on core U.S. concerns such as
nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea,
trade relations and climate change. He held his
tongue when his hosts carefully stage-managed the
trip to eliminate all opportunities for dissent,
and the two sides issued such a cooperative
communique that political analysts began to
speculate about a "G-2" era in which the powers
would address global problems together.

That was last year. By January, the murmurs of a
sea change in Sino-American relations already
were being drowned out by the noise of bilateral
friction over a series of issues. First, Clinton
publicly supported Google's threat to pull out of
China because of Internet censorship, and warned
of a new "information curtain" on the order of
the Cold War's iron curtain; the Chinese
government snapped back that this was a business
dispute, not the business of the two governments.
Making matters worse, Obama approved a
$6.4-billion arms sale to the self-governing
island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own;
Beijing retaliated by cutting off U.S.-Chinese
military cooperation and, for the first time,
threatening to punish U.S. companies involved in the sale.

Then, Clinton publicly advised China that it
risks diplomatic isolation and disruption to its
energy supplies unless it helps keep Iran from
developing nuclear weapons; China very publicly
responded that if Obama met with the Dalai Lama
as expected this month, it would cause "serious
damage" to the bilateral relationship. And last
week, despite having slapped tariffs on Chinese
tire imports, Obama promised Democrats "constant
pressure" on China to open its markets to U.S.
goods and to let its currency appreciate. A
senior Chinese official responded Thursday that
China would not succumb to pressure to revalue its currency.

What happened? Has China grown arrogant, as some
argue, or just cranky? Has the U.S. lost
patience, or lost its way? The answer is none of the above.

These clashes should come as no surprise. The
United States and China are prone to
misunderstandings, and serious, long-standing
disagreements between the two countries over
issues such as Taiwan and Tibet were never going
to be resolved overnight -- nor will they be
resolved in the near future. Some China watchers
suggest that Obama was naive to adopt a
conciliatory approach toward the communist
government and that his lack of success argues
for a combative posture. We don't think so. The
United States frequently alternates between
carrots and sticks in its foreign policy, and
neither works all that well by itself. The
relationship with our biggest competitor -- and,
not incidentally, biggest debt collector -- is a
long-term endeavor that requires maturity and
nuance on both sides. Mutual respect may not
succeed at first, but posturing and public
scolding are almost always ineffective.

The Taiwan arms deal is just one example of the
disconnect in interests and perceptions. To the
United States, the sale of defensive weapons
represents the continuation of a 40-year policy
of support for Taiwan that should come as no
surprise to China. Obama declined to approve the
F-16 fighter jets that the Taiwanese have long
sought, but to have canceled the deal as China
wanted would have exposed him to charges of
failing to live up to defense obligations from
those who already portrayed him as soft on China.

For Obama, the timing of the announcement made
sense: after his trip to Beijing and ahead of a
hoped-for visit to Washington by Chinese
President Hu Jintao this year. Beijing, however,
saw it as particularly untimely given that
relations between Beijing and Taipei are on the
mend. To the Chinese, the arms deal meant
continued U.S. meddling in an issue of
sovereignty, a setback after Obama committed
during his visit to focusing on shared interests.
The Chinese place the sale in a broader context
with other U.S. moves -- such as the redeployment
of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and the
Asia-Pacific, or closer ties between India and
the U.S. -- and they discern in it all a U.S.
strategy of containing the rise of China. In that
sense, Clinton's Internet comments may look to
the Chinese as though she's declaring a cold war
rather than, say, seeking negotiations for cyber
security, which could be in the interests of both countries.

U.S. presidents routinely meet with the Dalai
Lama to show support for Tibetan human rights,
but to the Chinese, Tibet is another domestic
issue; the religious leader argues for autonomy,
and they fear independence. Either way, they
don't think the United States should be involved.
The administration thought it had addressed
China's concerns by delaying the meeting, while
China sees an affront in the fact that the two men are meeting at all.

Beyond sovereignty, economic development is
China's core interest, and that's the context in
which Beijing views Iran, a main supplier of the
oil it consumes. Beijing does not think that Iran
poses a threat, but a cutoff of the oil does.
Clinton clumsily tried to make the case that
sanctions against Iran were in China's
self-interest, but it came off as more of a
threat when she said that China would find itself
isolated if it didn't go along with the United
States, Europe and Russia, and that its energy
supplies would be threatened by turmoil in the
Persian Gulf should Israel launch a military attack against Iran.

So what's to be done? Neither country wants to
derail a relationship that has been improving
gradually but steadily for the last 30 years.
China depends on our markets for growth, and we
depend on it for financial stability. Therefore,
the two sides need to return to building mutual
respect and a strategic trust, despite the
undeniable political divide over the proper role
of government; of course, we must do so while
holding true to core values such as respect for
human rights. China needs to grow into its
position as a global player and possible partner
with the United States. Meanwhile, Obama must
refrain from pandering to Democratic
protectionism in an election year. The United
States and its allies need to make an effective
case that it is in China's self-interest to
support sanctions on Iran, revalue its currency
and open its borders to more goods.
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