Sino-US Ties Aren’t That Bad
Image Credit: Pete Souza

Sino-US Ties Aren’t That Bad

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There seems to have been a noticeable shift in tone in the Obama administration’s approach to China, with the statement of intent to meet the Dalai Lama, the announcement of the arms sale to Taiwan and concerns being voiced over Google and hacking from China. Why is this happening now and does it reflect a substantive shift?

I don’t think there’s been a major shift in the administration’s approach to China. I think when looking at this we have to look back to early in the Obama administration, when it attached priority to cooperation with China — particularly on global issues like climate change, recovery from the financial crisis and non-proliferation. I’d say those are the three priorities that the Obama administration wanted to work with China on. And so to establish the groundwork for a cooperative relationship, some issues were postponed until the second year of the Obama administration.

It’s these issues are now coming to the fore, and that explains at least some of the areas of friction we’re seeing. For example, President Obama opted not to meet with the Dalai Lama when he visited Washington DC last October and chose instead to have that meeting probably next week. The same is true of the arms sale to Taiwan. Obama inherited the rest of a package of arms sales that the George W. Bush administration had approved but not sent the notifications to Congress for, so in the end it was inevitable that they would make the decision they did because the United States’ interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and supplying Taiwan with defensive weapons remains the same — there’s really been no change from the earlier administrations.

But there are other problems that are coming to the fore that are, we could say, more coincidental, such as the problems with Google, for example, and the questions of privacy and cyber-security it raised. I think that was somewhat unexpected as a public issue, although it has been the focus of great attention internally in the government. And then there are other issues, such as concerns about trade. We did of course see some of these in the first year of the administration – Obama slapped tariffs on imports of Chinese tyres, and that was unexpected in Beijing. But we see these cases continuing in a tit-for-tat manner where both sides are imposing tariffs and taking cases to the WTO. And there are also issues relating to concerns about China’s currency being under-valued, and there’s probably more attention on this issue now than there was last year.

So there have been a lot of issues piling up, and I think the Obama administration is now paying attention to them. Having said that, I don’t think that means the Obama administration has concluded that it can’t cooperate with China, or that it needs to send a tougher signal to Beijing in order to bring it to heel or force it to accept our view on things — I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. I think in areas where the US and China can work together, where they have overlapping interests, then the Obama administration will be happy to do so.

China appears to have taken a hard line on the arms sale to Taiwan. Were you surprised by China’s reaction? Traditionally when these arms sales have gone through it has protested by suspending military cooperation, for example. But the threat of sanctions against US firms seems to be something new.

Whether I’m surprised will depend on whether or not the threats are carried out. If it turns out to be mostly rhetoric, then I would say no. But if they actually go ahead and impose sanctions on US companies selling arms to Taiwan then yes, I would be surprised as I don’t think that’s in China’s interests or in the interests of US-China relations.

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