Last year saw an unusually tense period in US-China relations.
First there was the large US arms sale to Taiwan in January. Then came US President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in February. Meanwhile, there were ongoing differences over alleged currency manipulation, protectionist trade practices, the two countries’ divergent climate change approaches, China’s Internet censorship and cyber espionage activities and mutual concerns about each other’s Korean policies (the United States has been frustrated by China’s refusal to condemn North Korean behavior, while Chinese policymakers worry the US might provoke Pyongyang with its military drills in the region).
All this has meant that China has so far failed to become the regional and global partner the Obama administration was hoping for, while Chinese policymakers for their part have expressed confusion over why the administration would confront Beijing on so many issues in 2010 after being so accommodating just a year earlier.
It’s true of course that the tone of Sino-US ties has improved in recent weeks. But the fact is that this is probably more about the Chinese wanting President Hu Jintao to have a good legacy trip in Washington on what will likely be his last state visit to the United States. Indeed, the decision to finally invite US Defence Robert Gates to China this past weekend can be interpreted as less connected to ending the freeze Beijing imposed on high-level military contacts following the Taiwan arms sale, and more as an attempt by China to ease tensions over bilateral military relations ahead of Hu’s arrival.
So how does China really view its ties with the US? Late last year, the official Xinhua News Agency ran several commentaries assessing the bilateral relationship that likely reflect the views of many Chinese leaders. One that ran at the end of December complained that the ‘return’ of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region had complicated regional relations, especially with Washington’s ‘new-found’ penchant for intervening in bilateral disputes between Asian countries. The writer(s) presumably had in mind Washington’s diplomatic and military support for South Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other countries, many of which have territorial or other conflicts with Beijing.
Another commentary, published in the People’s Daily in November under the name of Li Hongmei, was even more explicit about Chinese grievances. It expressed, for example, irritation at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having ‘waded into the China-Japan dispute over (the) Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea by calling for trilateral talks’ that would include the United States as well as China and Japan. Li also denounced ‘the irresponsible remarks made by some American high-profile officials over the South China Sea issue’ in addition to their support for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, US arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.