Behind all the bluster, a need to work together

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am

Good times don't last long. This Chinese proverb appears to be an accurate description of Sino-US relations, which have rapidly been going downhill in recent weeks since the fleeting bilateral warm-up at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency.

It seems only yesterday that Obama and the other American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, courted mainland leaders in November in Beijing by quoting Chinese proverbs and hoping the two countries can 'cross the river in a common boat'.

Now the boat is plunging into deep, swirling waters while fights have broken out over trade, the Chinese currency, Washington's US$6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, Obama's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama, internet freedom and Beijing's alleged cyber-warfare against the West in the wake of Google's threat to pull out of the mainland over censorship and hacking attacks.

Most of the overseas media and foreign analysts seem to agree that relations could get worse in the near future.

With the American economy still struggling with high unemployment and politicians gearing up for mid-term elections for the US Congress, China is most likely to become the whipping boy again this year.

What particularly worries some overseas analysts has been an increasingly assertive stance from China's senior officials, official media and internet users.

While the angry rhetoric from Beijing was widely expected after Washington's announcement of arms sales to Taiwan, Americans were taken aback by Beijing's threat for the first time to punish US companies involved in such sales.

Indeed, state media has run articles quoting generals from the People's Liberation Army and nationalists as urging the mainland leadership to back the words with substantive action.

Obama himself, who used to be a darling of the state media and internet chat rooms, has become a target of attacks by some nationalistic media.

'Obama, 1.3 billion Chinese people despise you' is the headline of a lengthy article on, the website of the conservative Guangming Daily.

Many overseas analysts have surmised that Beijing has gained more confidence to play a bigger role in international matters following the global financial crisis and can afford to be more assertive and less compromising.

They certainly have reason to be worried, but the permeating pessimism about Sino-US ties is overplayed.

Looking at the ups and downs in the history of these relations, they have often dipped when a new American president took office. When George W. Bush first came to the office and labelled China a 'strategic competitor', relations went through a similar turbulence before improving so much that the ties between the two countries were hailed by both sides as the best ever in the waning years of the Bush presidency.

Worries about Beijing taking reckless action are also unnecessary.

The mainland may get richer and want to be more assertive over international issues, but domestic concerns still predominate. This year will prove even more critical as the government faces acute economic problems. As always, it needs a stable international environment, so it will focus mostly upon the problems at home.

While the mainland leaders have repeatedly said they will not bow to international pressure and revalue the yuan significantly, they are now being urged by mainland economists and officials to let the yuan appreciate by between 3 and 5 per cent this year, for China's own good.

If that happens, it may not be what the American officials had in mind, but it is a gain nonetheless.

Despite the new developments, the main factors that have current ties to the flashpoint are still largely the three T's - Taiwan, Tibet and trade - all longstanding problems.

But after the exchanges of barbs, both countries will have no choice but to sit down and sort out their problems, as they always have.

Maybe a more fitting Chinese proverb to describe the bilateral ties is: 'When things are good, there is little room to get much better, and when things are bad, there is little room to get much worse.'