It's time for the Obama administration to burst Beijing's bubble.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

IN ITS FIRST year, the Obama administration went out of its way to cater to China's communist leadership. It publicly put human rights concerns on a back burner, delayed a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama and did not press Beijing hard about its currency manipulation. Now it appears that effort produced the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than respond with its own gestures of cooperation, Beijing is pressing hard for more American concessions. Bursting with hubris about its emergence as a global power, it is testing to see how far a new and inexperienced U.S. president can be pushed.

That explains China's aggressive response to the administration's announcement last week of a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan; its dire-sounding warnings about the consequences of an expected meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama this month; and its public resistance to a U.S. effort to impose new sanctions on Iran. China is trying to tilt the balance of power in its direction by forcing the administration to back away from policies and principles the United States has defended for decades. It's essential that Mr. Obama calmly but firmly reject the pressure.

The Taiwan arms sale that prompted Beijing's latest eruption is an example not of U.S. provocation but of the Obama administration fulfilling an obligation as unobtrusively as possible. The sale was agreed to years ago by the administration of President George W. Bush; supplying Taiwan with arms is mandated by a 30-year-old act of Congress. To abandon the deal would signal the forfeiture of U.S. security leadership in Asia. So the administration went forward with the sale -- but it withheld the weapon most desired by Taipei, and opposed by Beijing: F-16 warplanes. It made sure China knew the announcement was coming.

Part of China's reaction -- heated rhetoric and the suspension of some military contacts -- was in line with its response to past arms sales to Taiwan. But Beijing also threatened to impose sanctions on U.S. companies that supply the weapons, something it has not done openly in the past. Steps against Boeing, which supplies a naval missile to Taiwan and commercial aircraft to China, would cause a major escalation in trade tensions.

At the moment, Mr. Obama's most active diplomatic initiative is the effort to win U.N. Security Council approval for tough sanctions against Iran, something that will require China's cooperation. The administration also hopes President Hu Jintao will attend a disarmament conference in Washington in April that is one of Mr. Obama's signature initiatives. It may be tempted to believe that more conciliatory gestures -- another postponement of the Dalai Lama, or a slacking of support for Google's challenge to Chinese censorship of the Internet -- may unlock China's cooperation.

That would be a mistake. Instead Mr. Obama should forthrightly support the cause of human rights in Tibet, and he should allow China to face potential isolation on Iran. The administration rightly says it hopes to cooperate on issues of mutual interest while not shrinking from differences. That, in fact, is the status quo that Mr. Obama inherited. Reinforcing it might require Mr. Obama to prick the bubble of inflated ambition that has been growing in Beijing.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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