Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

US and China Need Not Bare Teeth

| February 22, 2010

THE RECENT celebration of Chinese New Year of the Tiger was preceded by several of the "usual" frictions between China and the United States over arms sales to Taiwan, President Obama's decision to meet with the Dalai Lama, and US pressure on China to appreciate its currency. However, what's "unusual" is that China hardened its reaction, particularly by announcing sanctions on US firms. The escalating tensions make it look as though a dragon-tiger fight is imminent.

Since China and the United States are shaping the world as never before, such a fight would be harmful not only to themselves but also to the world at large. The United States is no longer a "paper tiger" — powerful in appearance but really nothing to be afraid of, as Mao Zedong described it in 1956. And China is no longer the "sleeping dragon" that Napoleon warned against waking up 200 years ago. The more weight the two nations have, the more important for them to treat bilateral relations with discretion and avoid provocations. As one possesses powerful means to take action against the other, the countermeasures from the other country would be equally strong.

Therefore, the "unusual" twist in Sino-US relations actually provides a fresh point for reflection in the new year. Most important is not to take the resilience of Sino-US relations for granted and thus repeat mistakes on some of the "usual" matters. An overreliance on the assumption that the powers frequently struggle but never break up because of their mutual dependence and deeply intertwined interests could backfire. This assumption is at the base of a number of attempts to test the red lines, which might lead to a lose-lose situation if not well-controlled.

On the Taiwan and Dalai Lama issues, the United States poked the untouchable reverse scales under the throat of the dragon. Obama is not the first US president to provoke the dragon, but this time it seems to have come to a point where China believes its "soft diplomacy" should no longer be taken for granted.

This is evident in China's announcement of sanctions on a few US companies involved in the arm sales to Taiwan. For the first time, China clearly used sanctions as a diplomatic means — a step different from its usual "soft" reaction of verbal "protest" and "condemnation." An online poll showed that 96 percent of Chinese respondents supported the government's action, though the Western media showed more surprise and concerns.

No matter how serious the friction, ultimately the United States and China will come back to dialogue and consultations. Then why provoke, fight, hurt, and get hurt? The consequences are like hammering nails in the wall — the nails could be taken out, but the holes, not. The United States might not care about the holes because American culture is rather forward-looking, but for Chinese whose perspective is more historical, the experience is different.

China should not want to get in a fight because what it needs most is a peaceful international environment for its development. The United States should not want a fight either. Given its perceived diminished popularity in the world, the United States should not turn China, which actually wants to be a friend, into an enemy instead.

The "usual" frictions will not yield new year's good wishes for peace and prosperity. Arms for Taiwan will not fuel peace across the Taiwan Strait, Obama's shaking hands with Dalai Lama will not reconcile him with Beijing, the US trade deficit will not be reversed by pressing and provoking China. Damaged bilateral relations will also poison the dynamics for cooperation on important global issues, such as climate change, nuclear weapons non-proliferation, and economic recovery.

The United States and China can cultivate a more constructive and mature relationship if they handle their disputes more carefully, even if such disputes cannot be resolved totally. Hopefully in the year of the tiger, we will see less of the tiger and dragon showing their teeth and claws but more of the two standing peacefully together, watching for opportunities to build the world into a better one.

Anne Wu is an associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Anne.“US and China Need Not Bare Teeth.” The Boston Globe, February 22, 2010.

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