Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Riling Up the Middle Kingdom

Sino-US relations are now in rough waters only three months after US President Barack Obama played the role of a polite guest in China, trying hard not to offend his hosts. Chinese officials also made sure Obama's personality didn't shine much either, as Chinese state media were practically muzzled from reporting on the American president's trip -- every staff-written story had to be pre-approved by the Foreign Ministry which meant editors either gave up bothering to write anything or stories were published a day late.

There were complaints at the time that Obama didn't speak out enough about human rights violations in China or push the Middle Kingdom to revalue the renminbi.

However, the Obama administration is beginning to strike back, starting first with Google threatening to leave China due to censorship issues. While the world's largest search engine is still operating in the country, the issue has raised a lot of questions, from complying with the communist government when it comes to censorship and how this goes against Google's philosophy, as well as the perils of doing business in China.

Then the offensive continued with the recent decision to sell $6.4 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan. The US is legally bound to supply weapons to Taiwan in a bid to defend itself after the Chinese mainland vowed to take back the "rogue province" even if it has to militarily.

However, the package, the first sales proposal under the Obama administration, is considered relatively modest compared to other years. This sale includes 114 Patriot missiles, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, 12 Harpoon missiles, communication equipment and 2 Osprey mine-hunting ships.

As expected, the Chinese reacted angrily. "The US side is fully aware that the Taiwan issue is related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China's core interests and the national sentiment of 1.3 billion Chinese people," according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese state media continued the attack, spewing vicious and nationalistic rhetoric and warned that if the sale went ahead, this would seriously damage Sino-US relations.

Obama didn't let this deter him and fired yet another salvo, this time announcing that he would meet with the Dalai Lama.

While he purposely avoided meeting the spiritual leader before going to China in November, White House spokesman Bill Burton said that Obama had told Chinese leaders he would visit with the Dalai Lama.

"The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader, and the president will meet with him in that capacity, Burton said. "To be clear, the US considers Tibet to be a part of China,' Burton said. But he added, "We have human rights concerns about the treatment of Tibetans. We urge the government of China to protect the unique cultural and religious traditions of Tibet."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry replied back on its website that Beijing strongly opposed any form of meeting between American leaders and the Dalai Lama.

"We urged the US side to fully realise the high sensitivity of the Tibet issue and cautiously handle the concerned matters, so as to avoid causing further damage im the Sino-US relations," the statement said. "We oppose any attempt by foreign forces to interfere in China's internal affairs using the Dalai Lama as an excuse."

The US and China are now engaged in a battle of words, but the rhetoric has ratcheted up several notches, making one wonder how this will turn out.

It will be interesting to see how hard Obama will be pushing China out of its defensive mode and at the same time continue to engage it on a productive level. China has already threatened some kinds of economic sanctions, including penalties on the companies that are providing the arms to Taiwan.

But despite the flurry of words, both sides need to cooperate on a certain level, so China can't completely shut out the US -- it needs customers for its exports. While the US is taking the risk of infuriating China, someone needs to stand up to the Asian giant. With the talk of "China rising", this is all getting to the country's head and it needs to know that jumping up and down like a selfish spoiled child is hardly constructive for the world.

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