Chinese People’s Liberation Army sailors march past Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last October during celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
China has halted its military cooperation with the U.S. and threatened this week to sanction American companies involved in selling arms to Taiwan.
Beijing’s sharp reaction came after Washington announced a $6.4 billion weapons deal to Taiwan. It is something of a role reversal.
Usually, it has been the U.S. sanctioning China. But now, China is pushing back on a raft of contentious issues, from Washington’s efforts to seek sanctions against Iran to President Obama’s plan to meet Tibet’s exiled religious leader the Dalai Lama.
We’re beginning to master ways to make the U.S. feel pain. Otherwise, it will just do as it pleases.
– Yuan Peng, a U.S. expert at a government think tank in Beijing
"Let The West Get Used To A Tough China," was the headline this week in the Global Times, a jingoistic Chinese tabloid.
After arms sales to Taiwan in the past, China could do little more than lodge a perfunctory verbal protest. But this wasn’t very effective, says Yuan Peng, a U.S. expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank in Beijing.
"By sanctioning these firms, we’re learning from the U.S.," he argues. "We’re beginning to master ways to make the U.S. feel pain. Otherwise, it will just do as it pleases."
Yuan says many Chinese initially had hopes that the Obama administration would bring a fresh approach to ties with Beijing, emphasizing cooperation on global issues such as climate change and non-proliferation, over bilateral disputes concerning Taiwan, Tibet and human rights.
This fresh approach seems not to have materialized, Yuan says, and now Beijing will no longer accept Washington’s explanations about what previous administrations did, or concessions it has to make to domestic politics.
"We know you have domestic politics, but we have domestic politics, too," Yuan says. "You have difficulties, and so do we. But the Taiwan issue is one of our core national interests."
One of the key factors in China’s domestic politics is public opinion, which is becoming louder and more diverse, especially on the Internet. And it is calling for a tougher line toward the United States.
Political commentator Wu Jiaxiang says that recent headlines have helped to boost China’s national confidence and pride.
"China has surpassed Germany to become the world’s largest exporter," Wu notes. "This year, China’s GDP is set to overtake Japan. China’s auto production is more than the U.S. and Japan’s combined. All this news taken together makes people feel like China’s got lots of muscle."
Some observers even detected a bit of swagger when Communist Party official Zhu Weiqun warned Obama this week not to go ahead with plans to meet the Dalai Lama.
"If America’s leaders choose to meet the Dalai Lama at this time, it would ruin trust and cooperation between the two countries," he told reporters. "How would that help the U.S. surmount the current economic crisis? It would be useless."
The implication seemed to be that the American president should be busy digging the U.S. out of its economic hole rather than meddling in China’s internal affairs.
But the U.S. and China have big global issues to cooperate on, and few analysts see the current chill as lasting very long. Analysts expect China to restore suspended military exchanges after a few months. And few are worried that it will derail a planned visit to the U.S. by Chinese President Hu Jintao later this year.
Meanwhile, China’s leaders continue to present their country as a responsible world power, not a global contrarian.
That was the message when Vice Premier Li Keqiang recently addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
"As a responsible big developing country, China will remain steadfast on the path of peaceful development and work with other countries in a joint endeavor to build a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity," Li said.
Yuan Peng, of the government think tank in Beijing, says his only worry is that by sanctioning U.S. firms such as Boeing, United Technologies and Raytheon, China will scare off foreign investors, some of whom are already jittery after Google’s recent threat to pull out of the China market.
"China needs to avoid sending the wrong message to the outside world through these sanctions," Yuan cautions. "And that is that we are finding an excuse to drive off foreign investment. That’s not our intention. Western countries, meanwhile, should realize that these sanctions are a singular event."
Yuan adds that it’s only natural that foreign investors are receiving a cooler reception in China these days. China’s shift away from foreign-invested exports toward domestic consumption is, after all, what the West has been pushing China to do for some time.