Obama's Push-Back Against China Is Bitter Medicine

04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Sedaei Senior Director of Iran Programs at Nonviolence International, Documentary Producer

For the past number of years, the prevailing view in foreign policy circles in Washington has been that China's economic growth of 9%, along with the recent economic recession that hit the United States, has shifted the balance of Sino-U.S. relations in China's favor. During a recent conversation I had with David Bosco, the author of Five to Rule Them All, he pointed out that while for most of the Cold War and twenty-first century, the Soviet Union -- and then Russia -- led the efforts to challenge Western authority on the international stage, China has been becoming the leading voice of opposition in the United Nations Security Council in recent years.

And ever since President Obama's inauguration, China has been especially uncooperative on a number of global issues. Kenneth Lieberthal -- director of Brookings Institution's China Center in Washington -- says such testy relations in the first year of American administrations have historic precedence as the two countries are more willing to test each other. Nonetheless, China has shown to be particularly resistant to respond positively to Obama's international charm offensive. Two of those major issues have been climate change and Iran. China sent a low level diplomat to negotiate with President Obama during the Copenhagen Conference on climate change in 2009 and unilaterally ensured the conference's minimal success by resisting enforcement mechanisms for any agreement on carbon emissions. And as the military rulers in Iran proceed with horrific human rights crimes and lack of cooperation to address concerns about their nuclear program, China has shown unwilling to cooperate on sanctions on Sepah-e Pasdaran, also known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

In response, the Obama Administration has started a deliberate and concerted effort to push back against China. Two days after the first year anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, Senator Clinton criticized China by name for its internet censorship practices. A week later on January 30, President Obama announced its plan to sell 6 billion dollars' worth of weapons to Taiwan, which China considers as parts of its territory as the island claims sovereignty. And President Obama announced earlier this month that he planned to meet with Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom China has accused of pursuing independence.

It was expected that China would try to respond to American actions in kind. It threatened to impose sanctions against American companies that sell weapons to Taiwan and criticized Hillary Clinton for her speech on internet censorship, calling on the United States to "to respect the truth and to stop using the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations." What is the truth? Doesn't China censor the internet and control its people like cattle when it comes to what they can or cannot read?

Some have sounded alarm about the recent friction and suggested that both countries need to cool down. But this is exactly when President Obama needs to bring China back to reality and get some unpleasant business out of the way. First, the contract with Taiwan was not newly drafted, but rather negotiated under the Bush administration. Furthermore, sale of weapons to Taiwan is nothing new. The United States is in fact obliged to provide the island with weapons to defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. What caused the postponement was Taiwan's own internal political wrangling. And President Obama was going to meet with Dalai Lama last fall and only postponed it to not anger China before visiting that country last year.

But the more important point has to do with why such unpleasant necessary. It took the United States decades to recognize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as China's representative on the United Nations Security Council as the U.S. continued to side with Chiang Kai-shek, who, having had lost a civil war against CCP, no longer governed mainland China and had retreated to Taiwan. When the Western powers finally recognized the CCP as the "legitimate," China showed restraint in blocking the agenda of the superpowers on UNSC. The trend continued as the Soviet Union -- China's strongest communist ally -- collapsed a debate later, making China less secure on the global stage.

But 2010, China has grown to feel pretty secure about its position on the Security Council. That fact, combined with the country's rapid economic growth, the American recession and its debt of nearly 800 billion dollars to China has led the Communist Party to get a false sense of security. It is false because China's power over the United States is often overstated.

Analysts like reminding us that we aren't supposed to anger China as they could stop lending us credit. This could lead the United States economy to face another recession or maybe even a depression as it will struggle to secure credit to pay for its short-term needs. But what analysts don't point out is that China, too, would be hit severely if it stopped lending to the United States. The United States is the biggest market for China's products, and any economic turmoil in the U.S. will directly hurt China. Furthermore, ending loans to the U.S. will only make it less likely that China will get paid back for any of its previous loans. This is the same reason why American banks are most willing to compromise and renegotiate the terms of their loans when their borrower is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. And the United States has also a number of nuclear options -- not literally nuclear -- that can push China into complete political turmoil. For example, it can recognize Taiwan and Tibet as sovereign. It's not likely, but it is possible.

Why should the United States get tough? Because foreign affairs are games of incentives. China continues to coddle repressive regimes throughout Africa because of its unsatisfiable need for commodities. It maintains a close relationship with the genocidal government of Sudan because it is Sudan's number one customer of oil, and its largest foreign investor. And it has been resisting sanctions against the rulers in Iran precisely for the same need for oil and its growing investments in Iran. And any limits on its carbon emissions can also force China to make serious changes to its development practices, which it does not like to do. All of these facts provide incentives for China to maintain relations with unsavory regimes and protect them on the international stage solely for selfish interests and in order to protect its own self-interests.

Because of this, the United States must do what it can to raise the political and economic price of advancing Chinese nationalism and economic growth at the expense of continued global warming, ethnic cleansing in Darfur and repression of nonviolent activists in Iran. It is also necessary because it is the only way to inject a dose of reality into the dialogue and eradicate some of the major misconceptions about the extent of China's power. Continued friction between China and the United States can be alarming in the long-run, but not nearly as alarming as any actions China may take on human rights and economic development front based on a false sense of security and invincibility.