Three times in the past three weeks China has infuriated foreign leaders, shrugging off international opprobrium to do things its own way.
On Christmas Day, a court sentenced leading human rights activist Liu Xiaobo to an unexpectedly heavy 11-year jail term for authoring an appeal for greater political freedom. That earned Beijing widespread international condemnation.
Four days later, the authorities executed a British citizen for drug smuggling, ignoring British government pleas for clemency on the grounds of the culprit’s history of mental illness. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “appalled” by the execution.
As storm clouds loom over United States-China ties, this new show of assertiveness bodes ill for Washington’s hopes of smooth relations with Beijing, analysts on both sides of the Pacific are warning.
“This is not the China of 10 or 20 years ago,” says Shen Dingli, head of the International Relations Studies Institute at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “China is unstoppably on the rise. Everything is going to be tough.”
Risking China’s displeasure
US officials have worked hard over the past 12 months to bring Washington’s relationship with Beijing onto a new plane, hoping that stable ties would foster closer cooperation on global challenges.
Two stumbling blocks are threatening that plan: an upcoming US arms sale to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory, and a meeting – expected soon – between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of seeking Tibetan independence.
Analysts here say the arms sale would likely prompt China to suspend recently restarted meetings between Chinese and US military officers, to which Washington attaches great importance. To express his anger at a Dalai Lama visit with Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao might boycott the nuclear security summit that Obama will host in April.
Though US diplomats hope to avoid such tit-for-tat diplomacy, they are still finding it impossible to sign China up to the international front they are seeking to build against Iranian nuclear fuel production.
Apparently fearing that the tougher sanctions Washington is advocating would jeopardize its growing oil and gas investments in Iran, China is resisting such punishment. “This is not the right moment for sanctions,” China’s ambassador to the United Nations said Tuesday.
Red lines on the economy
Disputes over bilateral trade and economic issues seem just as hard to head off.
Washington slapped additional duties on Chinese steel products Tuesday for the second time in a week, saying they were being sold at unfairly low prices.
Such protectionist moves “harm the Chinese government’s efforts to create jobs for Chinese workers” says Professor Shen. “We feel America is not treating China equally.”
Beijing’s continued efforts to weather the international economic crisis by exporting its way out of trouble – subsidizing export companies and keeping the renminbi currency’s value low – grates in Washington.
Larry Summers, director of Obama’s National Economic Council, and other senior US administration officials have argued forcefully for an end to China’s huge trade surpluses, demanding that Beijing should do more to stimulate domestic consumption and rely less on US shoppers.
“There is a fundamental incompatibility between China’s short-term decisions on where it is going and the US administration’s vision of a global rebalancing,” says David Gordon, head of research at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consulting firm. “The Obama administration is not going to accept that.”
Beijing, however, is not going to give way. “China’s outlook on the US has changed perceptibly since the global financial crisis,” says Drew Thompson, head of the China program at the Nixon Center in Washington. “They see their quick recovery and lingering challenges in the US as a vindication of their political system and their policies.”
“Don’t even think about a revaluation of the renminbi,” says Shen. “If China does what the West asks we would lose more and more jobs and people would be on the streets. The government might face a major challenge.”
The more insecure, the more inflexible?
If Beijing is sticking to its economic policy in the teeth of international demands for a change so as to preserve jobs and thus domestic stability, adds Shen, the harsh punishment meted out to the dissident Mr. Liu is a matter of “political security and thus domestic stability.”
As the income gaps between rich and poor and between cities and villages widen, Shen suggests, “the government is sensitive to voices that would stimulate public resentment” against the authorities. “They consider such voices threatening.”
“At its core, the Chinese regime feels insecure,” argues Dr. Gordon. “That insecurity is at the root of why they act as they do. If they felt more confident they would be more flexible.”
At the same time, adds Shen, while “we need to reflect how China could better appreciate other countries’ criticism,” the bottom line for Beijing remains unchanged. “Domestic stability is more important than the need to handle the international side.”