CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


The U.S. and China Have at it Again; but it’s much ado about nothing

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 2, 2010

Everyone is in a tizzy over the supposed downturn in U.S.-China relations. (See here, here, and here.) The rhetoric is heating up on both sides, and new issues of contention appear to pop up daily. Our disputes over Copenhagen, Google, Taiwan arms sales, the Dalai Lama and Iran are all front page headlines. Are we indeed headed for an open rift in the relationship that could imperil future cooperation on a range of important, pressing global matters?

Frankly, the potential for a full-blown deterioration in relations between our two countries has been grossly overblown. There is nothing new here. We are merely witnessing the reality of the U.S.-China relationship, which is marked by almost no trust, a weak foundation of real cooperation, and a lack of shared values and commitment to true compromise. China and the United States have never achieved full agreement on how to approach climate change; we have regular disputes over Taiwan arms sales and the Dalai Lama; and we have never had a truly common approach to Iran. The only “new” issue on the table is the Chinese cyberhacking of Google, a number of major American companies and think tanks, and Chinese dissidents…and even that is probably not all that new. We just didn’t know about it.

Right now both countries need to blow off a little steam. China is smarting from the beating it took from the international press over its political maneuverings at Copenhagen; the unmasking of its cyberattacks against U.S. entities; and a popular backlash at home over the government’s rather abrupt substitution at many movie theaters of a relatively unpopular Chinese movie about Confucius for a very popular American movie about a battle over a planet of blue humanoids. The United States, in the meantime, needs to regain some political ground at home on the China front. After months of extending its hand to Beijing, the Obama team has realized that Beijing has no plans to hold hands. China’s cyberattacks provide the perfect political fodder, allowing Washington to reclaim some moral and human rights highground, which we have been sadly lacking over the past decade. The fact that the Taiwan arms sales and a Presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama—which have both been telegraphed to the Chinese for months in advance—come right on the heels of the Chinese attack on Google, provides even greater opportunity to showcase American willingness to hold true to our principles.

In the end, after the leaders of both countries have satisfied their domestic audiences as well as made themselves feel a bit better by articulating the way they really feel, they will return to the table faced with the greatest challenge of all—maintaining the G-2 mirage.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by vkmo

    Both Obama and Dalai Lama are winners of Nobel Peace Prize. What could be so terrifying about a meeting of these two Nobel Peace laureates?

    Let me also say that upto the 1950s an average Tibetan living in the high Himalayan mountains of Tibet was lucky to see a gun or two in his lifetime. Now those peaceful snow covered mountains are laden with millions of assault weapons of all types, including nuclear. It was Mao Tse Tung’s desire- and of his successors from the mainland. During 2008 Olympics in Beijing, visitor travel to Tibet was banned. There never have been free elections in Tibet to see if the Tibetans wanted millions of immigrant Han Chinese and their daily supplies brought in by truckload and trainload. Tibetans are held subservient and their wishes don’t count.

  • Posted by Jeff

    First, I feel U.S. politics is driven too much by election and China is always the scapegoat. The U.S. government thinks arms sales to Taiwan will be “business as usual”. But it undermines the raising of Chinese international status. U.S. policy is influenced by lobbyists. I think the reactions from China this time around will snd U.S. company’s lobbyists work harder than ever. It may not a bad thing.

    Second, Chinese nationalism may push China government to use the cards they hold. If China sell $64 billion U.S. treasury bonds, 10 times the arm sales, in addition to the punishment to the U.S. companies. It will send U.S. stock market down. Although it is a lose on both sides, Chinese people would like to take. How about the American? Most people will question our government. It is like China sell weapons to Hawaii, if they want independence, and sell advanced weapons to Cuba at our doorstep.

    Third, the western think Dalai Lama is a peace figure and Tibet was independent. I do not see any report about all the Dalai Lama were appointed by China and even himself was appointed by Chinese DDP government then. No one says the 95% of the population were slaves when Dalai lama ruled Tibet and its brutality. Most people thinks Tibet was a beautiful and peaceful paradise….. He even called himself “son of India”. Western want to seize the opportunity to damage China, but I can not imagine China government will soften its position. The show will continue for another 10, 20 years. Everything will die down after Dalai Lama. It is just a political game and normal people suffers.

    I think it is bad for the state government involved in the Google issues. Does CIA censor the internet and hack other countries? Did our police arrested people who used Twitter in G20 protests in Pittsburgh last year. Microsoft said they got hacked often. Chinese Baibu was hacked just before Google’s announcement. No matter what motivation Google had, they have more negative images than positive in China now. They may have to be out and someone will be happy to fill in, including Bing.

    Overall, I think China government wants to capitalize the opportunity to confirm its new international status and make U.S. government have a second thought when the second round comes, also force corporation’s lobbyists to work in their favour. I believe they are serious and will take the words into actions if Obama meet Dalai Lama before their president visit. It will be very bad for Obama. For me, I voted for Obama, but may not do so again. He let the game out of control.

  • Posted by Tashi Tsering

    As a Tibetan living inside China, I have full religious respect to the Dalai Lama. However, I do not want to see him involved in politics which he is not good at. Tibet has always been a peaceful land, we see no millions of assault weapons as vkmo said above, but more and more investment from central authority. Of course there are many Han Chinese in large cities of Tibet, such as Lhasa and Xigatse, but the number of Tibetans in Beijing and Shanghai is also growing. Who has the right to forbid legal immigration within a state? I think any person who has interest in Tibet should personally come here to see lives of ordinary Tibetans, rather than just reading western propaganda

  • Posted by Michael

    Right on! Much ado about nothing. However, give china another 10 years or less and the west will kowtow to China once more to vie for those billion consumers’ RMB.

  • Posted by PulSamsara

    Go Google !

  • Posted by Xiao Liang

    As a Chinese living outside China, I have no religious respect to the Dalai Lama. However, I do want to see him involved in politics which he is good at. Tibet has never been a peaceful land, we see millions of assault weapons as vkmo said above, but less and less investment from central authority. Of course there are very few Han Chinese in large cities of Tibet, such as Lhasa and Xigatse, but the number of Tibetans in Beijing and Shanghai is also decreasing. Who has the right to legalize immigration within a state? I think any person who has interest in Tibet should not personally come here to see lives of ordinary Tibetans, rather than just reading chinese propaganda

  • Posted by lark

    You miss the most signif changed feature of the landscape and that fatally undermines your ‘status quo as usual’ point.

    The big diff is the American unemployment rate. Combine that with the growing perception in Washington (Summers, etc) that the currency peg is predatory mercantilism and deficit countries have nothing to lose from a trade confrontation and you have a recipe for big change on the trade front. I expect China to be labeled a ‘currency manipulator’ – and it’s all downhill from there.

    I’m amazed you ignore the most important issue. You should get out more.

  • Posted by Wilson Van Houten

    Jeff – the U.S. does not have a territory or interest that is comparable to Taiwan. Hawaii and Taiwan are apples and oranges. Taiwan is a part of the former political jurisdiction of China in which the Socialist revolution of your friend Mao failed. The PRC’s claims to Taiwan are ludicrous. Failure to assert control does not establish a claim but rather yields quite the opposite, doesn’t it?

    Tashi – propaganda is a house of mirrors, my friend. There is a good reason why many would like to slander the PRC vis-a-vis Tibet.

    The political culture in the PRC is basically an Asian cousin of Natzi Germany and they don’t really think much of the rest of the world. Listen to me now, hear me later.

    So, for all the “marks” and usefully blissful out there, get ready for a witchy few decades ahead. For oh so many reasons we are running out of time.

    Rule of law between nations is desperately needed and the peaceful route to law and order has slipped past us. It’s time to invoke Right of Conquest and mop the planet of the irresponsible, self-serving thugs running governments ’round the globe.

    If we don’t quickly assert a global framework for rule of law that is durable and just we’re ALL screwed, my friends.
    Does that make more sense?

  • Posted by Brian

    Jeff, you make some valid points, but not many. Although this is pure conjecture, I am going to assert that the likelihood of you voting in a U.S. election is low. Your grammar and syntax errors betray your slot on the payroll of the Chinese state security services. Take some English lessons before you decide to spread more agitprop. Perhaps you can convince your government to sell a few of those treasury bonds to fund your language training.

  • Posted by Jon

    The Western media has never fully examined the daily lives of the Tibetan people. If China were to grant autonomy to the region, and the Dalai Lama restores himself back to a religious and political leader of Tibet. I doubt that the Tibetian people would like to live under Dalai’s rule which are composed of subjugation of women, rule by a theocracy, and a political climate controlled by one leader.

    China is US’s largest creditor. US is the world’s largest debtor. Deteriorating relations between these two countries would keep every banker awake at night.

    The drama playing out in the media is just a a verbal disagreement. China and US has an interdependent and unhealthy relationship. Neither will let the opposing side fail.

  • Posted by AT

    Why does it always turn into a debate about Tibet?

  • Posted by Wangchuk

    Beijing was caught spying on the computers and emails of the Tibetan Exile Govt & sending viruses to many Tibetan exile organizations and human rights groups. Whenever any govt or organization raises the Tibet issue, Beijing sends its cyber warriors to attack the websites & computers of those govts and organizations. Beijing actively engages in cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism & then issues rote denials whenever they get caught.

  • Posted by kalsang

    Tashi: Yes, I have personally been to Tibet & seen the lives of people who lives in rural Tibet. Its very saddening to see how little progress has been made in every sense imaginable. People are amazed @ concept of airplane that enable people to fly in short time all over the globe; there is no electricity and in one village it was due to an effort of some Tibet living in Swiss who brought in few social improvement. And in Lhasa, I had hard time communicating with a Tibetan girl because she couldn’t speak Tibetan proficiently because she understand Chinese is the language that will get your bread and tea.
    You may see Tibetans in store, giving you the illusion that these are owned by Tibetan. If you cared to ask, majority of them are owned by Han Chinese. Opponents of Tibet need to stop that whole “China has brought so much change & you need to experience Tibet to see it” B.S.

    Jon: every country has practices in its history that it is ashamed of- Western Colonialism, Slavery. Feudalism wasn’t exception just to Tibet, it was originated from Europe. People need to realize the historical context of these practices and talk about it through that context. This Dalai Lama is probably the first of his kind to have been able to exercise great amount of freedom & independence. Many of the previous Dalai Lama’s are known to be controlled by corrupted aristocrats. These are known history so look it up. This present Dalai lama is a big advocate of political concept of democracy and its practices. He has clearly resigned himself from the title of political leader of Tibet. Tibetans in exile has been practicing independent electoral procedure since year 2000, electing it own prime minister and its officials to various offices of exile government. So your claim about Tibet going back to it feudal root has no basis or grounds for truth in it.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required