February 2, 2010 | Commentary on International Law, International Conflicts

Obama's Charm Lost On China

After nearly a year of well-intentioned efforts to develop the United States' relationship with the People's Republic of China, President Barack Obama isn't so gung-ho anymore – and ties are taking a downturn.

It didn't start with the now infamous Google incident, where the Internet search-engine giant discovered the Chinese government was hacking into the G-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

And it won't end there, either.

The troubles really started with the president's China trip last fall, despite the White House doing some costly kowtowing, not wishing to offend some of Zhongnanha's sensitivities before arriving.

In fact, Obama bent some human rights advocates' noses out of joint here by skipping a meet 'n greet with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader visited Washington because Beijing considers him a separatist and troublemaker.

He also put off arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, causing concern among security analysts about Taipe's decreasing ability to defend itself against a possible unifying onslaught by Beijing.

But despite making these concessions to China, Obama's trip in November – replete with Great Wall photo op – was roundly considered a flop.

There was no movement on market access for U.S. firms or China's undervalued currency, his stance on human rights was wishy-washy and he muffed well-polished policy language on Taiwan, catching grief from both the right and left.

Then came the Copenhagen climate conference, where the Chinese (and others) turned out to be a stick-in-the-mud on limiting greenhouse gas emissions despite Obama's personal intervention.

Indeed, Copenhagen seemed to be the pivot point in Obama's mood on the emerging Pacific power, perhaps, finally grasping the notion that "if we're just nice to them, they'll be nice to us" just doesn't cut it in big power politics. National interests count.

Since then the president has decided to move forward with a Taiwan arms package and a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama, which no doubt pushed Beijing's blood pressure to the boiling point.

(Unfortunately, Obama's out-of-control spending has created a foreign policy problem by giving the Chinese the mistaken impression that buying U.S. debt is a point of leverage, even calling themselves "America's banker.")

Plus, in a speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton amped things up a notch, picking another fight with China – and other Internet censors – by making access to the information superhighway a U.S. foreign policy priority.

In a riposte, Beijing claimed Washington used social media to foment unrest in Iran .

The current war of words leaves Sino-U.S. relations in a precarious position, especially considering the role China can play on issues such as international trade and economics, and North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs – not that they've been much help so far.

While the Obama administration was right to finally see China as a self-interested, rising power and to assert base-line American interests, it must be ready to batten down the hatches for some likely heavy seas across the Pacific from the "Middle Kingdom."

Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy