The United States and China are headed for a rough patch in the early months of the new year as the White House appears set to sell a package of weapons to Taiwan and as President Obama plans to meet the Dalai Lama, U.S. officials and analysts said.
The Obama administration is expected to approve the sale of several billion dollars in Black Hawk helicopters and anti-missile batteries to Taiwan early this year, possibly accompanied by a plan gauging design and manufacturing capacity for diesel-powered submarines for the island, which China claims as its territory. The president is also preparing to meet the spiritual leader of Tibet, who is considered a separatist by Beijing. Obama made headlines last year when the White House, in an effort to generate goodwill from China, declined to meet the Dalai Lama, marking the first time in more than a decade that a U.S. president did not meet the religious leader during his occasional visits to Washington.
The expected downturn with Beijing comes despite a concerted effort by the Obama administration for closer ties. U.S. officials have held more high-level meetings with their Chinese counterparts — including a summit in Beijing in November — in the first year of this administration compared with the inaugural years of the four previous presidencies since relations were normalized with Beijing in 1979, records show.
"I think it's going to be nasty," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of "The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money and Minds." That said, he added, "the U.S. and China need each other."
The White House is hopeful, too, that the damage will be limited. "The U.S.-China relationship is now far broader and deeper than any one issue alone," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "We will have disagreements . . . but we have demonstrated that we will work together on critical global and regional issues, such as economic recovery, nuclear proliferation and climate change, because doing so is in our mutual interest."
Still, the impending tension comes at a sensitive time. After hammering out a wobbly political deal with China on climate change in Copenhagen, the United States still needs China's help on three pressing international issues: Iran, North Korea and restructuring its economy so that its people consume more and export less. China recently backed a toughly worded statement on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency but continues to oppose enhanced sanctions, which the Obama administration has signaled it will pursue in 2010. The United States also seeks China's continued support in enforcing sanctions against North Korea and in pushing Pyongyang to return to nuclear disarmament talks.
Administration officials said they are sure China will react negatively to the arms sales and the meeting with the Dalai Lama. At a minimum, U.S. officials expect that President Hu Jintao will not attend a planned nuclear security summit scheduled for April. China could also halt the resumed U.S. dialogue with China's military, which had been one of the central goals of this White House's China policy. Any hopes for China's cooperation in Afghanistan are also in question.
One hint that China will limit the scope of its reaction came during Obama's meeting with Hu in November, analysts said. Hu used the formulation "sophisticated weapons" when speaking about any possible U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. U.S. officials took that to be a reference to a tranche of F-16 fighters that Taiwan has requested but that, according to U.S. sources, will not be on Taipei's shopping list this time.
"We hope that he [Obama] will not do that," said Zhou Wenzhong, China's ambassador to the United States, when asked about the possibility of the arms sales and the meeting with the Dalai Lama. "We have just had a very successful visit."
Still, U.S. officials and analysts have noticed a new assertiveness — what one senior U.S. official called a "sense of triumphalism" — on the part of officials and the public in China. This stems from a sense in Beijing that the global economic crisis proves the superiority of China's controlled economy and its authoritarian political system — and that the West, and in particular the United States, is in decline.
This triumphalism was on display during the recently concluded climate talks in Copenhagen. China only sent a deputy foreign minister to meetings set for the level of heads of state; its representatives publicly clashed with their American counterparts. And during the climax of the conference, China's security team tried to block Obama and the rest of his entourage from entering a meeting chaired by China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao.
That type of swagger is new for China and it could make for a stronger reaction from Beijing.
"If they really believe the United States is in decline and that China will soon emerge as a superpower, they may seek to take on the U.S. in ways that will cause real problems," said Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on China with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Complicating this picture is the view of some American analysts that the Obama administration — with its intensive outreach to Beijing — tried too hard in its first year to cultivate ties with China. Playing hard to get might have helped smooth out China's swagger, they suggest.
"Somehow the administration signaled to the Chinese that we need them more than they need us," Lampton said. "We're in the role of the supplicant."
The downturn would also occur at a time when China's long-established ally in the United States — the business community — is not as willing to argue on China's behalf as it was during rough patches in the past. China's government has made a series of moves to slow or reverse its market-oriented economic reforms over the last year that have prompted concern among many Western businesses. Although China has accused Washington of protectionist measures — on Wednesday, the United States imposed new duties on Chinese steel-piping imports — it also has moved aggressively to shut its markets to goods manufactured by Western companies in China. Now groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which traditionally backed ties with China, find themselves in the unusual position of organizing a public letter-writing campaign to pressure China to change its policies.
"If they continue on this particular path in a strong and inflexible way, there will be a significant political backlash not just in the United States," said a senior U.S. trade official. "China needs to be aware of that."