Analysis: China's tougher than before

BEIJING, China — China’s irate reaction to the Obama administration’s approval of a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan comes at a delicate time amid already growing tensions between the two global heavyweights.

The United States appears to be taking tougher stance on China than last year and Beijing is pushing back with confidence. In their latest quarrel, China lashed out at news of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan with a swift and strident reaction, raising red flags about the emerging power’s increasingly tense relationship with the United States. (In Taiwan, most back the deal.)

On Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman in Beijing to express its “strong indignation” over the weapons sale, according to a ministry statement. Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said the sale “will certainly damage China-U.S. relations, exert a very negative impact on bilateral exchanges and cooperation in many important areas and lead to consequences that neither side wishes to see.”

Policy analysts said the heightening tension is worrisome.

“China’s strong reaction to the U.S. announcement of plans to sell weapons to Taiwan is part of a tougher, more assertive tone coming out of Beijing,” said Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, north east Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. “The real tragedy would be if a downturn in U.S.-China relations damages international efforts — particularly through the U.N. — to cooperate on threats to international peace and security.”

At the heart of the latest spat is the Obama administration’s decision to proceed with a 2008 Bush administration plan to sell $6.4 billion in mainly defensive weapons to Taiwan (notably deferring a decision on F-16 fighter jets). Congress now has 30 days to approve the deal. U.S. weapons sales are not new. What is new is China’s self-assurance, and a brazen attitude that has emerged several times in recent months and may be contributing to tougher talk in Washington than was seen in 2008.

Though China has responded to arms sales before with tough rhetoric, this time it upped the stakes. Beijing said it would suspend military ties with the United States and threatened sanctions against American businesses. It revealed no details, but the reaction called into question the future in China for American aerospace companies like Boeing.

Beyond industry-specific questions, the U.S. move and Chinese reaction signal increased trouble ahead in the already fraught relationship. Over the past three months, the two sides have engaged in an escalating series of highly publicized spats, beginning with President Barack Obama’s first trip to China in November and building through the failed Copenhagen climate change talks in December.

Tensions inched even higher this month, when internet giant Google announced it might quit China over censorship and hacking. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with a speech decrying internet censorship, drawing China’s ire. On the side are a series of trade spats that escalated in part with the global financial meltdown.

In China, policy experts question the timing of the arms sale announcement — particularly as it would undoubtedly provoke Beijing. China’s irritation at the United States is only bound to grow, with Obama expected to meet with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in coming weeks.

“The problem, perhaps, is there is some indication that the Obama administration intended the timing of the announcement to be a signal to China — a signal that ‘we are going to not allow China to be assertive,’” said Wang Dong, an international studies specialist at Peking University.

“This is really an action-reaction cycle happening here,” said Wang. “It’s not a good situation.”

But some Chinese policy analysts are more matter-of-fact about the arms sale, noting that it has been in the pipeline — despite Beijing’s best efforts to derail it.

“I don’t think this means that America is taking a harder or softer position on China,” said Zhang Jiadong of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

“Obama’s government is just continuing Bush governments plan and policy,” said Zhang. “It is a contract for more than $10 billion signed by Bush.”

What has changed, he noted: “China’s attitude is tougher this time than before.”

If Washington is hardening its stance on China, and China is tougher before, 2010 is likely to be a tough year in China-U.S. relations.

(Editor's note: This story was updated to change the spelling of a name).