November 22, 2009

By Zhiqun Zhu

Relations between China and the United States deteriorated following the recent U.S. sale of $6.4 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan. China cut off military exchanges with the U.S. and threatened, for the first time, to sanction American companies involved in the arms deal.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are not a new issue. When Washington switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to commit the U.S. to the defense of Taiwan by selling Taiwan defensive weapons. Beijing has accused Washington of repeatedly violating the three joint communiqués in which the US promised to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution. For Beijing, Washington's justification of its arms sales to Taiwan based on the TRA is unacceptable because the TRA is a domestic law, which should not be used to defend a policy that has damaged bilateral relations.

Out of its own national interests, the U.S. will continue to sell weapons to Taiwan, regardless of Chinese uproar. The bottom line is that America — particularly its military establishment — considers China to be the greatest potential threat. Growing economic interdependence notwithstanding, strategically the two countries remain deeply suspicious of each other.

China had unrealistic expectations of President Barack Obama. Mr Obama became the first U.S. president to have traveled to China during his first year in office. He deferred to Chinese wishes before and during his November 2009 visit, most notably by avoiding meeting the Dalai Lama in Washington in October and by allowing the Chinese to stage-manage his speech in Shanghai. Many Chinese think the president is either very friendly to China or very weak in foreign affairs. Almost no one in China had expected Mr Obama would announce the arms deal so soon. The strident Chinese reaction displays China's frustration and sense of betrayal.

Most observers consider the three T's —Taiwan, Tibet and trade — to be the thorniest issues between China and the U.S.; indeed, these issues have frequently erupted as obstacles. However, the fundamental conflict between the U.S. and China is structural.

China's re-emergence as a great power is not a prediction anymore; it is a reality. Even during the current global economic downturn, China's growth continues to impress the world. China has become an increasingly proud, nationalistic and confident nation. This growing confidence is reflected in its foreign policy. It demands that its core national interests such as Taiwan and Tibet be respected. What the U.S. and the international community face today is a more powerful and assertive China. Neither the U.S. nor China wants to see tensions escalate, and both have a vested interest in a stable relationship. The unprecedented challenge for the two countries is how to adjust to, and cope with, the global power restructuring peacefully.

Posted Feb. 17, 2010


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