U.S. President Barack Obama has spent much of the last 12 months emphasizing the "mutual interests" that Washington shares with Beijing and the "mutual respect" they feel toward one another, despite inevitable disputes. Democratic members of Congress have held their tongues as Obama does his wooing; Republicans have seethed at the soft approach. Yet valiant though his attempts may have been to convince the Chinese (and himself) that power is not a zero-sum game, 2009 proved the opposite. Last year, Obama was ignored, rebuffed, and even humiliated by Beijing. And now the grievances on both sides are piling up: U.S. tariffs on Chinese tires, China's currency manipulation, Chinese hacking of Google, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The gloves have come off.
Expect 2010 to be the year that Obama gets tough and relations with Beijing get nasty. What Washington really wants from China is for it to be part of the solution rather than a problem on global issues -- to be a "responsible stakeholder," a term coined by former Bush administration official Robert Zoellick. The idea was that it was in China's interest to contribute to global solutions for conundrums such as climate change or Iran getting nuclear weapons. China, however, often doesn't see it that way, believing that its relegation to a "responsible stakeholder" -- along with emerging multilateral institutions like the G-20 -- is cleverly designed to keep China down.
So which U.S.-China disputes are intractable, and which are more easily solved? Think about them in three basic categories. Fundamental disagreements are the ones in which the Chinese Communist Party sees its very existence under threat; don't expect compromise there. Serious disagreements emerge over issues that could thwart China's rise in the region. And manageable disagreements are those that could merely damage China's reputation or some of its more minor economic interests. Here's how the most important U.S.-China quarrels break down:
Climate change: The Obama administration sees climate change as a chance to demonstrate its moral leadership. But to get political support at home, Obama needs China to agree to binding emissions cuts. China sees things differently: Carbon reduction is an economic sacrifice that won't pay off for decades, if it does at all. And the Communist Party, which believes it must maintain 8 percent annual GDP growth to prevent social unrest, simply can't justify that. Any drop in growth is seen as a threat to stability, so Beijing's promises on climate change will inevitably be broken -- note China's pointed refusal at the Copenhagen summit to agree to let outside parties verify its emissions reductions.
Tibet and Xinjiang: The United States has long supported the dual freedoms of religion and expression for ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs in China. But Beijing's insistence that its treatment of ethnic minorities is an "internal matter" is absolute. A combination of recent historic humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and a habitual suspicion of outsiders have convinced Beijing that the United States and its allies are intent on ultimately "dividing and carving up China" in order to weaken it. Support for Tibetans and Uighurs under the banner of "human rights" is seen as another Western "divide and rule" strategy. U.S. meetings with the Dalai Lama, for example, are guaranteed to produce fireworks from Beijing. Because while there are just 4.5 million Tibetans and 10 million Uighurs, the lands they occupy happen to be resource-rich and strategically important.