Tuesday, January 12, 2010

164) New York Times - Opinion on US-China relationship

The Dragon's Swagger
Op-Ed Columnist
New York Times, January 12, 2010

BEIJING — A U.S. official here told me he was “getting a little nervous about 2010” when it comes to Chinese-American relations. I’d say there’s plenty of cause for that. I’m not optimistic about the world’s most important relationship in the short term.

The Obama administration came in with a deeply held philosophical view about making the Chinese stakeholders, and partners, in an interconnected world. Human rights complaints were muted, the Dalai Lama put on hold, and President Obama swung into town in November with arms outstretched to the rising behemoth.

The Chinese were polite enough, if less so at the Copenhagen climate talks a month later, but they’re not buying this touchy-feely interconnection thing. When you’re sitting on sums north of $2 trillion in reserves, riding three decades of near double-digit growth, and just trucked past the United States to become the world’s largest auto market, nationalism trumps globalism.

Think of the headiest moments of U.S. expansion — the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties — to get some idea of Chinese swagger and possibility.

It’s been a rough two months since that November visit. China has snubbed Obama.

Top of Obama’s human rights list when he met President Hu Jintao was the case of Liu Xiaobo, the principal author of a pro-democracy manifesto. Liu’s since been sentenced, on Christmas Day, to 11 years in prison. Take that.

Top of Obama’s nonproliferation list was Iran and the need for a united front on its nuclear program. China has since said “sanctions themselves are not an end” as the United States tries to harness support for them. Take that, too.

Top of Obama’s trade list was the need for China to allow its currency, the renminbi, to appreciate rather than pegging it at an artificially low rate that spurs Chinese exports and, in effect, keeps jobs in Guangzhou as it kills them in Ohio. But a basic rule in China is that it looks inward before it looks outward. Its cheap-currency job-hoarding is about Chinese social stability, which is Job One for Hu and his cohorts, so there’s no sign of any movement.

Take that, for good measure, Mr. President — and in a year with a U.S. mid-term election where disappearing jobs are going to haunt Obama and the Democrats.

Then there was Copenhagen, of course, where Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s treatment of Obama left a bad taste in Washington; and the forced repatriation of Uighurs who’d fled to Cambodia from China, which infuriated Washington; and the execution of a U.K. citizen with mental problems, which dismayed Washington (and left British leaders seething). Well, you get the idea.

“Things are much tougher than I thought possible a couple of months ago,” William McCahill, a former U.S. diplomat who heads a Beijing research company, told me. “With the mid-terms and the Chinese inching toward their succession in 2012, a period when hard-line positions get staked, you can expect the rhetoric to pitch up.”

It already has. Since I arrived in China, newspapers have been awash in Chinese outrage at reports of the Obama administration’s approval of a sale by Lockheed Martin of advanced Patriot air defense missiles to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China views as a renegade province. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spoke of “severe consequences” from the sale, part of a $6.5 billion arms package for Taiwan approved under the Bush administration.

I have a double reaction to this Taiwan arms contract. On the one hand, Obama’s been stiffed, the United States is obliged under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide arms of a defensive nature to Taiwan, and China responds better to resolve than all that interconnected globe stuff. On the other, come on! Relations between Taipei and Beijing have never been as good, you’re never ever going to get a Chinese buy-in to real cooperation as long as it views Washington as meddling with its core strategic interests in this way, and “one country, three systems” looks a thousand times more likely to me within the next half-century than a Taiwan war that would shred Chinese stability.

Of these reactions, the latter is stronger because Obama is accepting a core antagonism of interest in the Chinese relationship even as he’s talked up cooperation. Perhaps that’s inevitable between the world’s superpower and its ultimate likely successor; but the Taipei deal guarantees it.

“The arms sales are stupid,” Chu Shulong, a political scientist often critical of the Chinese government, told me. “Yes, Taiwan and its democracy are important for your credibility in Asia, but what’s more important, that or the mainland? As long as America does this, it will be perceived as wanting to check China, divide China and challenge China’s fundamental national interests.”

The painful condition of the United States and China is that they are codependent, through trade and debt, but antagonistic. As elsewhere, Obama has changed language but not reality. I see a 2010 of rising protectionism, suspended military dialogue, Iranian discord, human rights disappointments and wars of words.

It could be worse. I don’t see outright confrontation now or any time. China wouldn’t risk its rise with that.

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