The Trouble with Beijing
Why U.S.–China tensions have increased.


Gordon G. Chang

Last Thursday, the White House announced that President Obama would meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington on February 18. China reacted swiftly, demanding that the event be cancelled. Earlier, Beijing had hinted that it would injure the American economy if the meeting went ahead.

Developments in Tibet, as tragic as they are, have not been considered central to U.S. relations with China since the 1970s, and many have asked why the Obama administration is angering Beijing over such a seemingly peripheral issue. The question is of special pertinence during a time of increasing tensions with the Chinese.

Not everyone believes Washington should try to manage the world with China as the “G2,” but the desire for good relations with Beijing is just about universal. Therefore, the most recent downward spiral in ties, triggered on January 12 by Google’s announcement of Chinese hacking, has caused great concern in the United States.

As a result of Beijing’s obvious irritation with Washington, some argue the Obama administration should abandon long-held American policies. Take George Gilder. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that the United States should not try to stop Beijing’s manipulation of the renminbi (its currency), should not sell arms to Taiwan, and should not assist American companies trying to resist Chinese cyberattacks. “How many enemies do we need?” Gilder asks.

The assumption behind his question is that by making concessions, Washington can make China a friend. This is exactly what the Obama administration tried to do from its first days. Last February, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said that Chinese human-rights issues could not “interfere” with more important matters such as “the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” At the time, she also ranked Taiwan and Tibet as secondary issues.

The concessions, meant to create good will in the Chinese capital, had the opposite effect. Beijing’s leaders were “ecstatic” when Clinton chose not to talk about human rights. “In their eyes, America had finally succumbed to a full kowtow before the celestial emperor,” wrote Laurence Brahm, an American with close ties to Chinese leaders, at the time.

It is undoubtedly no coincidence that, a few short weeks after Mrs. Clinton’s rhetorical concession, the Chinese felt bold enough to harass two unarmed Navy reconnaissance vessels in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. In one incident, Chinese boats tried to separate a towed sonar array from the U.S.S. Impeccable, an act constituting a direct attack on the United States.

The president, unfortunately, did not complain about that particular act of war. Instead, his administration rushed to bolster ties with the Chinese military, as if the hostile maneuvering were merely the result of a misunderstanding. On the eve of his November summit in Beijing, Obama refused to see the Dalai Lama, and then spoke of the “strategic partnership” between the United States and China, something the Chinese had wanted to hear for a decade.

At the same time, Jeffrey Bader, his top adviser on Asia at the National Security Council, unintentionally signaled to Beijing officials that they had a veto over American policy. He called China “an essential player on the global issues that are the center of our agenda,” and then said that on none of these issues “can we succeed without China’s cooperation.”