Friday, February 12, 2010

China-US Relations Back to Old Inharmonious Mode

Barack Obama administration's decision to sell approximately $6.4 billion weapons to Taiwan has incited new tension in the relations between China and the United States. Earlier, Washington had announced several times to impose punitive tariffs on some China-made products; the US ambassador to China openly proclaimed that Obama would definitely meet with Dalai Lama; White House and the Department of State keenly showed their support to Google on its possible move to withdrawal from China market. All these recent issues have gradually changed the atmosphere surrounding China-US relations. The US announcement to sell weapons to Taiwan was in tune with the trend.

Antimissile System
The weapon deals between the United States and Taiwan this time involve three types of weapons, including Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot III antimissile system, and mine dredgers, all are considered weapons of defense. Taiwan has been hoping to acquire F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, but in vain.
The United States did not tell the reason why it rejected to sell the jets to Taiwan, but it was believed because of the concern of China's possible reaction. As what happened in the past, the United States gives a number of reasons to justify the weapons deals, yet they are apparently unacceptable for Beijing. It is unacceptable not because of the factors of how many weapons are sold or how advanced those weapons are, but because Beijing perceives it as being disparaged by the United States.

China's Reactions
Ever since the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the United States, arms deals between the United States and Taiwan have always been a major disagreement between the two countries. There was a huge power gap between the two countries in the past, thus China's reactions had been "loud thunder, small raindrops" -- vocal complaint but little action, so that it would not cause any damage on its ties with the United States to avoid bigger losses. As far as Washington in concerned, previous US Presidents only made their moves in arms deals when their tenures approached the end, presumably to reduce the impact on China-US relationship. In any case, generally the United States had always been in the dominant position, while China could only react to the actions taken by the former.
The arms deals this time have an obvious difference after taking over the office one year ago, Barack Obama swiftly decided to put the arms deals in practice. This is unusual. Obama has rarely criticized China openly during his election campaign and his first year as the US President. He has been modest and gentle, rational and steady, which had saved the two countries from plunging into tension like what happened every time a new president resumed office in the past. However, the Obama administration attitude toward China has changed drastically since early 2010. Open criticism took over the place of diplomatic negotiation; modesty gave way to intransigence. Obama administration even chose to risk the diplomatic relationship with China by allowing the arms deals become an issue at such an early stage. What has caused the changes?

Decline of Obama's Approval Ratings
If we look at the matter in the context of recent period, internal politics is a major factor. The United States has, yet to recover fully from the economic crisis, where unemployment rate remains high at 10 percent, resulting in up surging public discontent and drastic decline of Obama's approval ratings. Moreover, the Democratic Party suffered a backlash in the Senate special election in Massachusetts. Stunned by the poll results, the White House started to feel the sense of crisis pertaining to the midterm elections. To bring itself up from the unfavorable situation, the Obama administration has to adopt a tough and dominant approach both externally and internally. In relation to China-US ties, it has shown its dominant gesture through trade protection, internet freedom, issue of Dalai Lama and the arms deals with Taiwan.
Nevertheless, it is a big question mark whether being firm and harsh on China will bring any political benefit to the Obama administration. The Chinese Government also faces all sorts of discontent among people and similarly, it also needs popular supports. In the face of the US actions that will undermine its "core interests," the Chinese Government has to take stern measures to react, to avoid losing popular supports. Therefore, in addition to the announcement of suspending military interaction with the United States, the Chinese Government has also imposed sanctions on the US companies involving in the arms deals. Unexpected for some Americans, China has never made such strong reactions in the past.

Expected Change
Like Obama administration, the most important political concern for leaders of China will get the support and approval of the country's people. Since Washington did not bother if its actions would make its bilateral ties with China go sour, China was not obliged to suppress its grievances for Obama's sake. The people's supports are worth everything, even if they have to sacrifice China-US ties, including high-level contacts.
The US midterm elections will be held in November and White House has started to prepare for the elections. Therefore, after the announcement of the arms deals with Taiwan, the United States is expected to change actions in relation to China-US ties. It is difficult to maintain any optimistic expectation on China-US relationship this year. The two countries have gone back to the old inharmonious mode where "all deals entail conflicts."

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