The US-China ties are no stranger to conflict, but few can remember a descent in the relationship more rapid than that which occurred in the last weeks of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. In November, during President Obama’s first official trip to China, an administration source lauded relations with Beijing as “the best ever,” and on December 15, Secretary of State Clinton defended the soft approach the administration had taken on human rights violations in China, arguing that disagreements with the country were best ironed out “behind closed doors.” That speech was given on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Copenhagen to try to reach a deal to curb carbon emissions and slow global warming.

There is little doubt that President Obama’s encounter with Chinese officials in Copenhagen, coming soon after the end of his less than successful visits to Shanghai and Beijing, is a principal cause of the deteriorating relationship. The Obama team had worked for many months to make the Beijing and Copenhagen summits successes. American officials thought that President Obama would be allowed to deliver an address in Shanghai that would be viewed nationwide. But it was broadcast only in Shanghai itself, and the audience was made up of handpicked students asking questions vetted by party functionaries. In Obama’s talks in Beijing, nothing was achieved on climate change, China’s currency, human rights, or Iran. An uncomfortable Obama was forced to preside, with Chinese President Hu Jintao, over a press conference at which no questions were asked.

In Copenhagen, Obama was snubbed by Premier Wen Jiabao, forced to negotiate with a low-ranking vice minister, and initially kept out of a key meeting held by the so-called BASIC Group countries (Brazil, China, India, and South Africa). China is said to have blocked issuing a joint statement that set emission reduction targets, and after the summit ended China’s negotiators revealed that it never had any intention of agreeing to emissions cuts that were independently verifiable. On January 25, China announced that it would not, after all, sign the Copenhagen Accord, with one of its senior environmental officials claiming that China held an open mind on the question of whether in fact global warming was caused by human activity.

Old Irritants Reemerge, New Ones Surface

Other disagreements erupted in January. Beijing condemned the conclusion of the latest US arms sale to Taiwan, a package worth $6.5 billion in anti-missile batteries, Blackhawk helicopters, and submarine technology. An increasingly assertive Chinese military warned of “severe consequences” and mulled, among other steps, sanctions against US firms that sell arms to Taiwan. Meanwhile, sources in Washington revealed work had already begun on the next package of arms for Taiwan. To make matters worse, Beijing fumed as Taiwanese President Ma Yingjeou was granted a transit visa to the United States.

China, which held the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in January, reiterated it would not support more sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. In Washington, the Obama administration put tariffs on Chinese steel products and began to investigate market disruptions by Chinese goods in other areas. As if responding to a WTO ruling that China had to open its market to American films, the State Council announced Chinese domestic films would make up two-thirds of all screenings in China. To back this up, the record-breaking film “Avatar” was temporarily removed from the country’s 2D screens in favor of a patriotic epic on Confucius.

Senior US officials told their Chinese counterparts that President Obama was determined to meet with the Dalai Lama, a meeting that had been postponed by Obama as a gesture to Beijing prior to his visit to China. If Beijing was grateful for the president’s efforts to play down human rights during the first year of the relationship, it had a funny way of showing it. Hu was unyielding on Tibet and the Dalai Lama in his two meetings with Obama in Beijing, though the Dalai Lama’s envoys were invited for the ninth round of talks with China’s United Front Department in January, talks that thus far have yielded no results.

In Beijing, Obama had handed over a short list of priority “cases of concern” of prisoners who the United States would like to see released. At the top of the list was Liu Xiaobo. On Christmas Day, Beijing’s Number One Intermediate Court sentenced the “Charter 08” co-drafter to 11 years in prison, an extremely harsh sentence for the crime of “inciting subversion.” Other names on the list included Dhondup Wangdren, a Tibetan filmmaker sentenced in late December for “inciting splittism,” Gao Zhisheng, the human rights defender “disappeared” for nearly a year, and Xue Feng, an American geologist in the hands of China’s state security police for more than two years. Days after the Copenhagen climate meeting ended in disarray and disappointment, China convinced Cambodia to forcibly repatriate a group of Uyghurs who had been applying for refugee status. Protests from the United Nations, United States, and European Union were dismissed out of hand by Beijing.

But the event that brought relations to a new low was Google’s surprise announcement, on January 12, that it had been the object of a sophisticated cyberattack apparently originating from China, and that similar attacks had been mounted against other corporations. Email accounts of human rights defenders in China and activists abroad had been hacked. Google announced that it was no longer willing to censor its China-based search engine, setting up a confrontation with China’s censors that could well have far-reaching consequences for freedom of expression. On January 21, Secretary Clinton gave a major address about Internet freedom in which she called on the Chinese government to investigate Google’s accusations. In contrast to her speech just five weeks before, Clinton very publicly lashed China as an enemy of Internet freedom in the same camp as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Vietnam. Beijing hit back with a vitriolic statement against American Internet imperialism, accusing Washington of using the Internet to foment unrest in Iran, China’s increasingly close friend.

As The Polls See It

Though honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his potential to bridge differences and nurture dialogue, Obama has seen some of his key domestic initiatives, like health care reform and economic recovery plans, lose steam or become unpopular. His public approval rating has dropped virtually every month of his presidency. Democratic control in Congress, Obama’s best political card for pushing forward his policies, is wilting and will probably be in more jeopardy after mid-term elections in November.

A US president weakened on his own turf is unlikely to muster a persuasive foreign policy, but the American public appears to have dwindling interest in international affairs anyway, even where China is concerned. A Pew Research Center poll from December showed 49 percent of Americans think the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” the highest percentage since the question was first posed, by Gallup, in 1964. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed growing disapproval of US policies toward terrorism, international relations, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Americans were evenly divided over Obama’s handling of relations with China.) The percentages of members of the Council on Foreign Relations that think US foreign policy should prioritize democracy-building and human rights protection are at all-time lows. At the end of 2009, a smaller percentage of Americans saw China as the main threat facing the United States, as compared to a year prior, but a clear majority continued to see China as an economic rival. Of particular concern is that Republicans polled by Pew have a much less favorable opinion of China than Democrats, not good news for the relationship as the GOP positions itself to seize back control of Congress.

One of the few things to come out of Barack Obama’s trip to China was an agreement that the two countries would hold a round of the much-delayed human rights dialogue in Washington in February. In December and January, the two countries wrangled over possible dates for what would be the 15th round of human rights talks dating back to 1991. As this issue of Dialogue goes to print, no agreement has been reached on when the next round of the dialogue will take place, but it is virtually certain that it won’t be held in February. Many in both capitals speculate that the round could be postponed indefinitely if President Obama meets the Dalai Lama as expected in late February.

A renewed human rights dialogue—and the parallel legal experts dialogue—would offer the two countries an opportunity to clear the air on an expanding list of human rights issues that includes suppression of dissent, censorship of the Internet, and denial of minority rights in Xinjiang and Tibet. Other opportunities to discuss human rights—an issue that has once again risen to the fore in US-China relations—would include President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States (perhaps in April, for the nuclear non-proliferation summit in Washington) and the holding of the next round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July. All of these events hang in the balance as the current bad climate threatens to get worse and attitudes in both capitals harden.

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