Is the tension in the relations between the US and China over the decision of President Barack Obama to notify the US Congress on January 29, 2010, of his decision to clear the sale of a new arms package to Taiwan showing signs of cooling down?
It is less than a week since Mr Obama cleared the sale, but some Chinese comments have already started referring to the consequent diplomatic tension in the past rather than in the present tense. A reference is made to it not as a continuing tension, but as the “recent” strain.
Does this mean that after having stepped up the rhetoric with blunt warnings of Chinese economic sanctions against US companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which manufacture the weapons and other military equipment that are proposed to be sold to Taiwan, the Chinese are trying to cool the crisis?
The threat of sanctions still remains, but the realization seems to be sinking in that the sanctions could prove to be a double-edged sword. For example, a half of the existing Chinese commercial aircraft fleet is of Boeing manufacture. If the Chinese impose sanctions against Boeing, what impact that would have on the maintenance of the aircraft acquired in the past and the continued availability of spare parts for them?
Next to the Beijing Olympics of August, 2008, the Chinese have attached a major importance and status symbol to the forthcoming World Trade Expo in Shanghai. Its success would to a considerable extent depend on the participation of American manufacturers and businessmen. If China tried to take punitive action against some US companies in retaliation for the Taiwan deal, what impact it might have on US participation in the Shanghai Expo?
China has to stood to benefit in recent years not only in its economic development, but also in its diplomatic standing in the international community as a result of the over-all improvement in its relations with the US. Individual areas of tension remain and will continue to remain, but should such areas be allowed to damage the over-all relationship?
The Obama Administration might be sticking to the policies of the previous Administration in matters such as those concerning Taiwan and human rights in Tibet, but it is not showing any indication of reverting to the policy of multilateral tie-ups with countries such as India, Japan and Australia in a manner that could be detrimental to China. Is it not in China’s interest to encourage the Obama Administration to continue to avoid such tie-ups which worry China?
One could see signs of an introspection in the articles carried by sections of the Chinese media , which are more balanced and less jingoistic than those published immediately after the decision of Mr Obama. Even the titles of these articles speak of a desire to cool it. Examples: “ China & US On Steady Path To Warmer Relations” ( Global Times of Feb.2) ; “Old Issues, New Ways of Engagement” ( Global Times of February 4); “Keep Sino-US Soft Conflicts Under Control “ (China Daily of February 4).
Even on the issue of the expected meeting of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Mr Obama possibly later this month, Chinese analysts have started making a distinction between Mr Obama’s right to receive any foreign visitor, which may not be that deplorable, and his using such meetings for moralizing purposes such as highlighting the continuing US interest in Tibetan human rights, which would be deplorable.
A clear enunciation of the Chinese official thinking on the general issue of the importance attached by Beijing to China’s relations with the US and the sequel to the current tensions relating to arms sale to Taiwan and the proposed meeting with His Holiness might be given by Mr Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, during his participation in the annual Munich Security Conference starting on February 5. This is the first time a Chinese Foreign Minister is participating in this conference.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd ), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.