I certainly wouldn’t put much confidence in the claim that relations have improved between the US and China. In fact, despite Obama’s claims, it appears they’re much worse. Recent actions by the US have riled the Chinese to the point that they’re being anything but subtle about their feelings and certainly not keeping those feelings out of state sanctioned publications. According to the UK’s Sunday Times, 55% of Chinese agree that “a cold war will break out between the US and China”.
What has spurred this turn of events?
The finding came after battles over Taiwan, Tibet, trade, climate change, internet freedom and human rights which have poisoned relations in the three months since President Barack Obama made a fruitless visit to Beijing.
You’ll most likely remember how the administration touted the visit as one which significantly improved out relations with China. Apparently the administration was the only one which saw it that way:
During Obama’s visit, the US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, claimed relations were “really at an all-time high in terms of the bilateral atmosphere … a cruising altitude that is higher than any other time in recent memory”, according to an official transcript.
The ambassador must have been the only person at his embassy to think so, said a diplomat close to the talks.
“The truth was that the atmosphere was cold and intransigent when the president went to Beijing yet his China team went on pretending that everything was fine,” the diplomat said.
In reality, Chinese officials argued over every item of protocol, rigged a town hall meeting with a pre-selected audience, censored the only interview Obama gave to a Chinese newspaper and forbade the Americans to use their own helicopters to fly him to the Great Wall.
President Hu Jintao refused to give an inch on Obama’s plea to raise the value of the Chinese currency, while his vague promises of co-operation on climate change led the Americans to blunder into a fiasco at the Copenhagen summit three weeks later.
Diplomats say they have been told that there was “frigid” personal chemistry between Obama and the Chinese president, with none of the superficial friendship struck up by previous leaders of the two nations.
And, if you can believe it, it has gone downhill from there.
An independent survey of Chinese-language media for The Sunday Times has found army and navy officers predicting a military showdown and political leaders calling for China to sell more arms to America’s foes. The trigger for their fury was Obama’s decision to sell $6.4 billion (£4 billion) worth of weapons to Taiwan, the thriving democratic island that has ruled itself since 1949.
“We should retaliate with an eye for an eye and sell arms to Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela,” declared Liu Menxiong, a member of the Chinese people’s political consultative conference.
He added: “We have nothing to be afraid of. The North Koreans have stood up to America and has anything happened to them? No. Iran stands up to America and does disaster befall it? No.”
Apparently they’re on to the new but unspoken motto of the Obama administration “speak a lot, but do nothing”. What is being sensed by these military leaders in China is weakness. And such weakness is never left alone or ignored in international politics – it is always, in some way, shape or form exploited. While some may see this as nothing more than saber rattling, knowing the Chinese, it’s much more than that. It signals a significant change in our relationship:
Chinese analysts think the leadership, riding a wave of patriotism as the year of the tiger dawns, may go further.
“This time China must punish the US,” said Major-General Yang Yi, a naval officer. “We must make them hurt.” A major-general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Luo Yuan, told a television audience that more missiles would be deployed against Taiwan. And a PLA strategist, Colonel Meng Xianging, said China would “qualitatively upgrade” its military over the next 10 years to force a showdown “when we’re strong enough for a hand-to-hand fight with the US”.
Chinese indignation was compounded when the White House said Obama would meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, in the next few weeks.
“When someone spits on you, you have to get back,” said Huang Xiangyang, a commentator in the China Daily newspaper, usually seen as a showcase for moderate opinion.
If that’s the moderate opinion, you can imagine what the more hawkish among China’s opinion makers are saying.
This is what happens when amateurs play at foreign policy and those they’re dealing with sniff out weak (or non-existent) leadership. As I mentioned quite some time ago, 2009 would be a year of relative calm as other nations took the measure of the new administration and what they could expect. Once that was done, 2010 would most likely be the year when they’d act – and frankly, given this from China, it’s most likely not going to be a pleasant year for US foreign policy.
Oh, and if you think China is willing to back the US on new sanctions against Iran – as the administration has been claiming – I’d be willing to take that bet and give odds that no such backing will ever be given by China.