U.S., China make effort to get along

By Paul Richter

February 14, 2010

Reporting from Washington - When Google threatened to pull out of China last month after hacker attacks on its networks, the Obama administration announced with some fanfare that it would lodge an official protest with Beijing.

"We want some answers," an indignant Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said at the time.

Soon, however, talk about the diplomatic protest ceased. U.S. officials raised the issue with the Chinese in private, they said, but have never delivered the written diplomatic message.

This careful de-escalation was a prominent example of the way in which the two countries have quietly moved to limit the damage from a series of noisy conflicts this year.

Collisions over Taiwan, Tibet, Iran, Internet freedom and other issues have led to angry words and canceled meetings. Nonetheless, the leaders of the two countries appear intent on managing the clashes in hopes of maintaining the stability of a relationship each side sees as essential for economic as well as political reasons.

When the Obama administration announced Feb. 5 that it would sell $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, Beijing warned of "serious repercussions," slapped sanctions on U.S. businesses involved in the sale and canceled planned U.S.-Chinese military exchanges. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and considers such sales as the arming of a potential adversary.

But, significantly, the Chinese stopped short of canceling the entire military exchange program, a more extreme step that they have taken in the past. Instead, they called off only scheduled meetings, leaving open the option of quickly restarting the program without much damage.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a furious reaction from Beijing on Jan. 21 when, in a speech on Internet freedom, she suggested in Cold War overtones that the Chinese and a few like-minded nations were erecting a new wall around their populations.

U.S. officials later said the speech wasn't a response to the Google furor and had long been planned. The address was rewritten repeatedly to tone down sections that the Chinese might find provocative, officials said.

The Chinese, too, sought to limit the fallout from the Internet issue. At first, Beijing denounced Clinton's speech as "information imperialism." But within days, China's foreign minister sought to portray the issue as a commercial one that could be negotiated between the two sides.

And Clinton, in an appearance after her meeting with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in London, acknowledged that there were several views on how actively the Chinese control their Internet. "Different people have . . . different impressions," she said.

U.S.-Chinese tensions are likely to flare again over President Obama hosting a White House visit by the Dalai Lama this week despite forceful objections by China. Beijing views any sign of U.S. support for the Tibetan spiritual leader as a challenge to its territorial integrity.

Obama, who was criticized by liberal and conservative human rights advocates for sidestepping a visit with the Dalai Lama last year when he visited China, is trying to carefully calibrate how to signal support for the Tibetan spiritual figure without going too far.

Officials say the meeting will be more formal than some previous presidential visits by the Dalai Lama. President Clinton once took enough time only to drop by while the Dalai Lama was visiting another office of the White House.

But the visit with Obama will probably fall short of an embrace like the one offered by former President George W. Bush, who escorted the exiled Tibetan to Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

Even so, the Chinese reaction is expected to be angry. Some experts have predicted that it will cause Chinese President Hu Jintao to cancel plans to attend a summit on nuclear security that is to be held in Washington this spring.

Despite overall signs of conciliation, U.S. officials say privately that they are concerned that China, emboldened by its growing economic and political power, appears to have become more aggressive on the world stage. In several areas, the administration feels a need to push back, officials say, acknowledging that this could damage the relationship.

"Chinese nationalism has to be managed," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Yet officials say their goal is also to maintain what Hillary Clinton calls a "mature relationship" that allows the two sides to transact business on a number of fronts even while they tangle in other areas. The officials insist that the relationship is more stable than ever and that their approach to disputes follows the pattern set by predecessors, both Republican and Democrat.

Obama will be the fourth president in a row to meet with the Dalai Lama since 1990. And the arms sale is basically the culmination of a deal set in motion by the Bush administration. Obama delayed both the moves in hopes of starting out the U.S.-China relationship in 2009 on a good foot.

"Many of these tensions are not new, nor is the rough patch this relationship is entering," Winny Chen, a researcher at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the administration, wrote in an online assessment this week. Each president since Ronald Reagan has faced periods of conflict with China, she said.

Douglas Paal, a former U.S. official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he believes that Chinese leaders "have been careful not to do substantial damage to the relationship, while making louder noises to appease their domestic opinion." He predicted China would continue to resist efforts to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran, probably abstaining from a Security Council vote after doing all it can to water down a punitive resolution.

Nevertheless, he said he believes that the two countries' relationship will be held together by economic interdependence and the need to work together on issues including the financial crisis, climate change and nonproliferation.

He predicted that Obama and Hu would end the year with productive meetings and that the relationship would look better in 2011.

"I can't believe the United States and China will be looking for a fight," Paal said.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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