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China's strident tone raises concerns among Western governments, analysts
"There is a real rethink going on about China in Europe," Grant said in an interview from Davos. "I don't think governments know what to do, but they know that their policies aren't working."
U.S. officials first began noticing the new Chinese attitude last year. Anecdotes range from the political to the personal.
At the World Economic Forum last year, Premier Wen Jiabao lambasted the United States for its economic mismanagement. A few weeks later, China's central bank questioned whether the dollar could continue to play its role as the international reserve currency.
And in another vignette, confirmed by several sources, a senior U.S. official involved in the economy hosted his Chinese counterpart, who then made a series of disparaging remarks about the bureau that the American ran. Later that night, the two were to dine at the American's house. The Chinese representatives called ahead, asking what was for dinner. They were informed that it was fish. "The director doesn't eat fish," one of them told his American interlocutor. "He wants steak. He says fish makes you weak." The menu was changed.
Tone with Europe, India
With Europe and India, China's strident tone has been even more apparent. In autumn 2008, China canceled a summit with the European Union after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Before that, it had denounced German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her contacts with the Tibetan spiritual leader. And in recent weeks, it has engaged in a heated exchange with British officials over its moves to block a broader agreement at the climate conference.
At the Chinese Embassy, Wang differed on the climate issue. "China is strongly behind the idea of meeting the issue of climate change," he said, "but at the same time we think that there are some people who want to confuse the situation, and we feel the need to try to let the rest of the world know our position clearly."
China also suspended ties with Denmark after its prime minister met the Dalai Lama and resumed them only after the Danish government issued a statement in December saying it would oppose Tibetan independence and consider Beijing's reaction before inviting him again.
"The Europeans have competed to be China's favored friend," Grant said, "but then they get put in the doghouse one by one."
China's newfound toughness also played out in a renewed dispute with India over Beijing's claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet. Last summer, China blocked the Asian Development Bank from making a $60 million loan for infrastructure improvements in the state. India then moved to fund the projects itself, prompting China to send more troops to the border.
David Finkelstein, a former U.S. Army officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now runs the China program at the Center for Naval Analyses, said the new tone underscores a shift in China. "On the external front," he said, "we will likely see a China that is more willing than in the past to proactively shape the external environment and international order rather than passively react to it."
An example would be events that unfolded in December when 22 Chinese Muslims showed up in Cambodia and requested political asylum. China wanted to hold seven of them on suspicion of participating in anti-Chinese riots in the Xinjiang region in July.
Under intense pressure from Beijing, Cambodia sent the group home, despite protests from the United States. Two days after the group was repatriated, China signed 14 deals with Cambodia worth about $1 billion.