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Global Viewpoint

US vs. China: a dangerous phase has begun

China is a formidable adversary whose ultimate strength is not its military hardware but its economic prowess, and whose diplomatic weapon is not saber rattling but great patience.

By Martin Jacques / February 16, 2010



London

The spats between the United States and China appear to be getting more numerous and more serious. The Chinese objected in strong terms to Washington’s latest arms deal with Taiwan and threatened to take sanctions against those firms involved. President Obama recently accused the Chinese of currency manipulation. At Davos, Larry Summers, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council, made an oblique attack on China by referring to mercantilist policies. 

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The disagreement between China and the US at December’s Copenhagen climate summit has continued to reverberate. The Chinese government reacted strongly to Google’s claims – supported by the US administration – that cyberattacks against it had originated in China and its statement that it would no longer cooperate with government censorship of the Internet. The US has been increasingly critical of China’s unwillingness to agree to sanctions against Iran. And finally the Chinese government is accusing the US administration of interference in its internal affairs by insisting on the meeting this week between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama in Washington.

The issues of contention have come thick and fast. For the most part, however, they are hardly new. The Chinese reaction to the Taiwan arms deal was entirely predictable, the only novelty being the threatened sanctions. Taiwan remains the most important priority for Chinese foreign policy. Their response to the Dalai Lama in Washington is equally predictable. 

Obama’s and Summers’ statements about currency manipulation and mercantilism, respectively, are a little different. True, they are not entirely new; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner accused the Chinese of currency manipulation in January 2009. But since Mr. Geithner’s ill-judged remark, the US administration has until now chosen to be more discreet.

Google and climate change are relatively new bones of contention. But we should not be surprised by these disputes. China’s rise means that it is now involved in areas of the world and on issues where previously it had little or no stake. As China increasingly becomes a global power with interests to promote and defend around the world, it is bound to come into conflict with the United States on a growing number of subjects. 

It appears that the US-China relationship is entering a markedly different phase. The key question is whether this will lead to growing acrimony between the two countries to the point where the bilateral relationship between them is seriously harmed or whether the generally positive relations of the past three decades can continue.

There is a further underlying change in their relationship, namely China’s rise and America’s decline. While neither is new, the latter has only begun to be recognized since the global financial crisis. The expressions of the shift in power between the two are numerous. China has become more self-confident and, in a mild way, more assertive. 

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