U.S.-China relationship shifts toward deep mistrust

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 8:14 PM

BEIJING - When President Obama came to China a year ago, on his first official Asian trip, he spoke of the "deep and even dramatic ties" between the two powers that would work as partners on shared global burdens such as climate change, nonproliferation and the world economy.

On his return to Asia - a trip that pointedly bypasses China - the talk of partnership and shared burdens has been largely replaced by a deep mutual mistrust, with widespread disappointment on both sides.

In the intervening 12 months, Chinese leaders became infuriated when Obama met with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China has branded a separatist criminal, and when Washington announced plans to sell sophisticated weapons to Taiwan.

U.S. officials tried in vain to get China's leaders in May to condemn its ally North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship, and then became alarmed at Beijing's bellicose response to a September incident involving a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol ship around a group of disputed, uninhabited islands.

In between there have been disputes over trade - involving tires, car parts and chicken- and questions of whether China is manipulating its currency.

What happened over the past year, experts agree, was a case of heightened expectations on both sides crashing into realities on the ground - to the point where relations now between the United States and China are at one of the lowest points in years.

President Hu Jintao's planned state visit to Washington in January could help reset the relationship with China, according to experts on both sides.

The deterioration has come against a backdrop of a China that is feeling increasingly emboldened - having weathered the global financial crisis while the United States continues to struggle - and that has become more confident in pressing its interests in the region and around the world, Chinese and American analysts said.

Several experts agreed that there was no single issue that caused the downturn, but rather an accumulation of unrelated events combined with some crossed signals and big misunderstandings of each other's positions.

"Each side has been concerned about what it's seen the other side doing," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "What you have is a cascading set of developments that have no single cause or linear connection."

At the center of the initial misunderstanding, both U.S. and Chinese analysts said, was the Obama administration's early outreach to China to become a partner in tackling such issues as Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. administration saw this as giving China a greater voice in global affairs commensurate with its new status as an economic giant. But the Chinese leaders' response was essentially: Okay, but what do we get out of it?

"Early on, when the Obama administration took office, they promised China more face and status in global affairs," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University. "Later, the Chinese government found that the Obama administration wanted so many things from China."

Shi said many of the U.S. demands "can seriously harm China's interests, for example the appreciation of renminbi, and asking China to sell out Iran." He added, "A big promise comes with a big price."

As the price for that cooperation on global issues, Chinese leaders assumed they would make progress on two core issues - stopping U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, and not giving a White House platform to the Dalai Lama - and thought they had extracted U.S. concessions on both last year, analysts said.

First, Obama decided not to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington in October 2009 - breaking a precedent of U.S. presidents seeing the spiritual leader going back to 1991. Administration officials at the time said they were only "postponing" meeting the Dalai Lama until after Obama's China trip. But Chinese leaders apparently saw the move as more permanent, analysts said.

Also, this January, the administration announced plans to sell $6 billion worth of Patriot antimissile systems, helicopters and communications equipment to Taiwan - provoking a furious response from China, which then canceled planned military exchanges.

The U.S. side was clearly surprised by the reaction - every U.S. president had sold arms to Taiwan. The package did not include the most sensitive weapons Taiwan wants, which are F-16 fighter jets. And U.S. officials had forewarned their Chinese counterparts of the pending sale.

Besides, U.S. officials believed, the range of big global issues on the table were far too important to be disrupted by a minor perennial irritant such as arms sales to Taiwan.

But Chinese leaders clearly saw a link between their cooperation on global issues like climate change, Iran and North Korea, and American arms sales to Taiwan.

"The U.S. thinks China's recent reactions are provocative or even arrogant," said Yuan Peng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. "But China thinks that China didn't change. Taiwan and meeting the Dalai Lama have always been the core interests of China. These are never minor issues.

"China is disappointed by the Obama administration," Yuan added. "Before, China thought Obama was the president for change, and he would have some new thoughts about cooperation between great nations. However, he has no essential difference from other previous presidents."

Tao Wenzhao, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Washington should get used to the fact that China and the United States are two different counties. "There will be different opinions and different interests in some areas."


Staff researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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