Disputes, disappointment strain U.S.-China relations

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010

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?

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