Obama's Dangerous China Game

Obama’s arms sale deal with Taiwan has provoked Beijing at a particularly delicate moment. Leslie H. Gelb on why neither nation has thought through the consequences of a collision.

Don’t be surprised if the United States and China start rattling each other’s cages again, and this time, perhaps seriously. The Obama administration triggered this latest round by announcing on Friday a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. For Chinese leaders, this is the worst affront, since they consider Taiwan part of China. They retaliated immediately, mainly by announcing sanctions against unspecified U.S. companies involved in the arms sale. Similar byplay has occurred many times before, but never at a time when American fortunes seemed on the decline and Chinese prospects so bright—and never before with Chinese leaders at once so self-confident, even arrogant, about their international power, yet still so insecure and paranoid about their internal control over political and ethnic dissidents.

It’s not at all clear that Chinese and American leaders have thought strategically about their next moves and how to keep the situation within bounds.

The cage rattling won't come close to blows, but it will unsettle and unnerve international affairs, and ignite a new and damaging testing of great power wills. Count on this tug of war to block mutual cooperation on stifling the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and to further sour ongoing trade and investment disputes and charges of Chinese Internet censorship, and whatever else turns up. Most worrisome, it’s not at all clear that Chinese and American leaders have thought strategically about their next moves and how to keep the situation within bounds.

Nonetheless, the administration has decided to strike the first blow against what they regard as endless Chinese unhelpfulness.

The backstory here is a classic of diplomatic wordsmithing and ambiguities that keep the peace—and keep the pot boiling. Once Washington and Beijing established relations, they agreed that there was only one China, and that Taiwan was part of China. Beijing interpreted that to mean that the United States would not try to sustain a Taiwan independent of China. Washington never conceded this point and took the position that if Taiwan was to be reunited with Mainland China, it must be by peaceful means. Congress codified this policy in 1979 by mandating that the United States provide for Taiwan’s security. U.S. administrations sold mainly defensive arms to Taiwan, and Beijing screamed foul on each occasion. The Bush administration made relatively small arms sales to Taiwan over eight years.

The Obama arms package, now before Congress for a 30-day waiting period, consists mainly of Patriot interceptor missiles to counter the 1,000-plus Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan, Black Hawk helicopters, Harpoon land and sea missiles, and communications equipment for Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighters. The pending sale does not include what Taiwan wanted most—a new generation of F-16’s and submarines. To complicate matters further, the new Taiwanese government requesting these American arms has improved relations with China. It stopped the highly irritating threat of the previous Taipei government to declare independence from China (which could start a war) and continues to expand trade with Mainland China. China is now Taiwan’s largest export market.

The State Department justified this new sale, after a long period of relatively small sales, as necessary to ensure security in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing called it “a gross intervention into China’s internal affairs [that] seriously endangers China’s national security and harms China’s peaceful reunification efforts.” China wants the sale stopped and took several steps toward that end. Predictably, it suspended planned high-level military exchanges and visits. But it could go further and postpone or cancel the visit of China’s president to the United States set for later this year. Beijing’s foreign office also said it would impose sanctions against unspecified U.S. firms involved in the arms sale. The meaning of this is unclear. Washington has not sold arms to China since its crackdown against dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But it could affect firms like Boeing that sell commercial airliners to China.

Beijing’s bosses are not known for their willingness to compartmentalize relations. It’s usually either mostly good or mostly bad. That attitude presages greater difficulties in keeping or gaining their help in cajoling and imposing harsher economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Until now, Beijing at least held the door open for further joint moves. Now, it’s likely to signal otherwise, and the bad guys in Tehran and Pyongyang will take notice and comfort.

American leaders were also looking for a more forthcoming response from Beijing on a host of trade, currency, and investment issues. China has not done much to allow outsiders to compete on an equal footing in its market. In particular, Washington was hoping for a Beijing decision to hike the value of its currency against the dollar and make U.S. exports more competitive. Whatever the prospects for this before, they will plummet now. The same is true of hopes for joint actions on global warming.

And not to be forgotten in the midst of all this are the Internet freedom/human rights issues that have been fouling the air between the two giants for weeks now. Google, you’ll remember, has accused Beijing of attacking its communications to ferret out information on Chinese dissidents. This is an ugly business that sparked a spirited response from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week. This issue touches the most sensitive nerves in American values and Chinese power mania over internal dissidents. These nerves will jangle more next month if President Obama decides to see Tibet’s Dalai Lama, the personification of opposition to China’s rule of Tibet. Mr. Obama had declined to see the Dalai Lama before his visit to China in November.

Beijing and Washington have the best of reasons, particularly shared economic interests, to keep the lid on their test of wills. Both, and especially the United States, preach the virtues of a cooperative overall relationship. But one can never tell which way politics will tug Mr. Obama. It should be in the direction of avoiding yet another major international problem that detracts from fixing the American economy. But he might reckon that beating up on China would rally Americans behind him. Administration officials now say the point of the arms sales to Taiwan was to signal to Beijing that Washington would extract a price for Chinese recalcitrance.

As for Beijing’s rulers, they too want to focus on their economy, but their growing sense of self-importance in the world seems to know no bounds. They may actually believe they can make Mr. Obama back down on the Taiwan sales—and they would be dead wrong. And then, Beijing could transform an unpleasant arms sale they should be able to live with into an excuse for international stalemate and confrontation. Neither American nor Chinese leaders give much proof of having thought through the consequences of where they’re headed.

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Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is the author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.