It was only a few months ago that President Barack Obama’s whirlwind Asian tour stopped over in China, and the president received a very warm welcome. In the past week, much of the warmth the Chinese felt toward the United States, and Obama specifically, has disappeared. In what has become an almost daily event, Beijing and Washington have been consistently issuing statements berating each other. This change in relations was as sudden as it was dramatic, most likely due to its rather superficial nature. Throughout history, presidents have tried to overshadow domestic opposition by drumming up international conflict.
Some say that such tension is inevitable as China’s power and influence grows relative to the United States’s. China naturally finds it can flaunt U.S. authority with greater impunity and challenge America’s hegemony. However, this theory has some problems. Chinese power has been on the rise for quite some time, and it is unlikely that tensions would appear overnight. Moreover, the issues fueling the spat are by no means novel. Rather, Obama’s sudden about-face — from a president seemingly soft on foreign affairs and dependant on China’s treasury holdings to one who is apparently ready to fight — is seen by the Chinese as more political than substantive, and thus they see no need to compromise or back down.
During the Obama campaign, and into the first year of his presidency, Obama espoused a less confrontational foreign policy strategy, famously offering to open dialogue with Iran and other American foes. When he was elected, the Chinese applauded his emphasis on cooperation over conflict, but showed him little respect. During his Asian visit, he was proudly paraded around the country, but sent home empty handed. The Chinese offered only vague promises of cooperation on major issues.
It did not help that earlier last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked Beijing to keep buying U.S. debt. As a result, the Chinese perhaps thought they had little to fear from this new administration. Obama did not seem combative in foreign relations and still needed China to invest in the United States.
Now all that has changed; leading up to this week, Clinton publicly criticized China for its restrictive internet policies, its cyber attacks on the United States and its refusal to help the United States address Iran’s nuclear program. However, the real offensive began last weekend when Obama announced a multi-billion dollar sale of weaponry to Taiwan. As China considers Taiwan to be its own territory, they were naturally displeased and responded by cutting off military-to-military dialogue and threatening sanctions against U.S. weapons companies involved in the deal. Obama responded Tuesday by announcing a meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom China views as a Tibetan separatist, and accused China of currency manipulation Wednesday. These moves further angered the Chinese, who, in turn, issued more threats.
This sudden shift from respectful economic dependence to ever-growing hostilities is stunning, and most likely a function of politics more than of policy. It is unlikely that the Obama administration changed its China policy so drastically. Furthermore, the Chinese response cannot be explained simply by disagreements over Taiwan, currency or Tibet — these are not new to U.S.-Sino relations and have always been handled without major turmoil. It is the political context of the situation that has caused the spat.
According to China Daily columnist Huang Xiangyang, the Chinese see this new, tougher stance as a political ploy by Obama to score much-needed public support at home. They do not think he is serious in his threats and are therefore not backing down or compromising. Thus, both sides are issuing rhetorical broadsides — hopefully with little intention of real harm.
E-mail Ed Innace at firstname.lastname@example.org.