ANALYSIS

China's strident tone raises concerns among Western governments, analysts

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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

China's indignant reaction to the announcement of U.S. plans to sell weapons to Taiwan appears to be in keeping with a new triumphalist attitude from Beijing that is worrying governments and analysts across the globe.

From the Copenhagen climate change conference to Internet freedom to China's border with India, China observers have noticed a tough tone emanating from its government, its representatives and influential analysts from its state-funded think tanks.

Calling in U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman on Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said the United States would be responsible for "serious repercussions" if it did not reverse the decision to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion worth of helicopters, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles, minesweepers and communications gear. The reaction came even though China has known for months about the planned deal, U.S. officials said.

"There has been a change in China's attitude," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a former senior National Security Council official who is currently at the Brookings Institution. "The Chinese find with startling speed that people have come to view them as a major global player. And that has fed a sense of confidence."

Lieberthal said another factor in China's new tone is a sense that after two centuries of exploitation by the West, China is resuming its role as one of the great nations of the world.

This new posture has befuddled Western officials and analysts: Is it just China's tone that is changing or are its policies changing as well?

In a case in point, one senior U.S. official termed as unusual China's behavior at the December climate conference, during which China publicly reprimanded White House envoy Todd Stern, dispatched a Foreign Ministry functionary to an event for state leaders and fought strenuously against fixed targets for emission cuts in the developed world.

Another issue is Internet freedom and cybersecurity, highlighted by Google's recent threat to leave China unless the country stops its Web censorship. At China's request, that topic was left off the table at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank and co-chairman of the event, told Bloomberg News. The forum ends Sunday.

China dismisses concerns

Analysts say a combination of hubris and insecurity appears to be driving China's mood. On one hand, Beijing thinks that the relative ease with which it skated over the global financial crisis underscores the superiority of its system and that China is not only rising but has arrived on the global stage -- much faster than anyone could have predicted. On the other, recent uprisings in the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang have fed Chinese leaders' insecurity about their one-party state. As such, any perceived threat to their power is met with a backlash.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said China's tone had not changed.

"China's positions on issues like arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet have been consistent and clear," Wang Baodong said, "as these issues bear on sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are closely related to Chinese core national interests."

The unease over China's new tone is shared by Europeans as well. "How Should Europe Respond to China's Strident Rise?" is the title of a new paper from the Center for European Reform. Just two years earlier, its author, institute director Charles Grant, had predicted that China and the European Union would shape the new world order.


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