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.