The turbulent U.S.-China relationship

In addition to managing a dismal domestic economic situation, two foreign wars and a negative country image, U.S. President Barack Obama must tackle another hurdle: China.

This past Thursday, Obama was subject to considerable disapproval from China when he met with the internationally-revered cultural and religious leader the Dalai Lama in a low-key meeting at the White House.

Beijing views the exiled spiritual leader as an antagonistic separatist leading the Tibetan secessionist movement from China. China strongly emphasizes issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and denounced the meeting as complete disregard for these international norms.

Despite Washington’s attempt to downplay the controversial encounter by making it a discreet and simple matter, the Chinese Foreign Ministry promptly summoned Jon Huntsman, the American Ambassador, to Beijing and chastised the U.S. for demonstrating such disrespect.
The spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Ma Zhaoxu, issued an official statement, saying, “The U.S. action seriously interfered in Chinese internal affairs, seriously hurt the feelings of China’s people and seriously harmed China-U.S. relations.”

The backlash from this meeting is just one of the many thorns in the American-Chinese relationship. Some key aspects of Obama’s foreign policy conflict with that of China, particularly regarding issues of restricting Iranian nuclear development and rebalancing foreign currencies.

Moreover, China recently condemned the current U.S. administration’s announcement that they would proceed with a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. The U.S. is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide the Asian island with weapons deemed necessary to defend it.

Nonetheless, the arms sale is seen as American interference in Chinese internal affairs, as there exists a highly contentious and complex political relationship between Taiwan and China.
However, there have been arms sales between the U.S. and Taiwan in the past, and China knew about this deal for some time as it was negotiated under the Bush Jr. administration.

Consequently, China may simply be trying to flex its muscles and assert its position in international politics. Due in part to its success during the financial crisis, China has fast-tracked down the path to world superpower status. The Economist reports that “China is rather prone to having fits, or at least seeming to have them” and that it can afford to now with the global balance of power shifting.

CNN chief foreign affairs analyst Farheed Zakaria explains, “[China] doesn’t need the U.S. as it did … this is producing a China that is more parochial, more inward-looking and potentially more adversarial in its relationships with the West.”

Some experts believe that China’s anger towards the U.S. is not simply a facade and a trade war may ultimately erupt, characterized by economic sanctions and protectionist policies.

Hints of a troubled bilateral trading relationship appeared this past September when Obama permitted a 35 per cent tax on Chinese tire imports to prevent the loss of thousands of American factory workers’ jobs. China retaliated by threatening to apply similar harsh tariffs to American products

In addition to the Dalai Lama meeting, the Taiwan arms sale and the implementation of tariffs, a communications battle ensued between the U.S. and China this year. In January, Google threatened to pull out of China because of extreme censorship and reports of the government hacking into e-mail accounts.

All of these issues beg the question of how the U.S.-China relationship will unfold during this new era of waning American power and increasing Chinese influence.

Undoubtedly, China has become a key player in international politics. Zakaria articulates the main challenge, saying, “If [the West] can allow China some space in the international system, that is commeasured with its increasing profile, or are we going to draw the line so low that anything they do is a challenge to us?”