Taiwan, Tibet, and trade loom over U.S.-China ties

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BEIJING (AP) — Barely two weeks into the new year, U.S.-China relations are being roiled by old tensions over Taiwan, Tibet and trade, along with new irritations including Google’s charges it had been hacked and Pentagon concerns over the People’s Liberation Army’s massive buildup.

The new friction in what is emerging as the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship poses a key test of the depth and resiliency of those ties, along with the pragmatism of their leaders and recognition of their mutual interdependence.

For now, soothing the raw atmosphere surrounding ties may be the two sides’ most pressing task.

Allegations this week from Internet giant Google Inc. of hacking from inside China prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to say she had “very serious concerns and questions.” Google itself said it will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country completely — an indication that China’s massive market may not be the irresistible draw that it has been.

The sharper tone also was underscored by unusually frank comments from the commander of American forces in the Pacific, who characterized China’s massive military buildup as aggressive and aimed at limiting American freedom of movement in the region.

“That there are ‘bumps in the road’ not far ahead is self-evident,” said business consultant Robert Kapp, who headed the U.S.-China Business Council from 1994 through 2004.

“We can’t know whether, on each issue, the two sides, in a reasonable amount of time, will be able to find common ground, and what the ramifications of failure are,” Kapp said.

Earlier this week, before the Google bombshell, Clinton had played down the possibility of a major rift with China, telling reporters on her way to begin an Asian trip that the two had a “mature relationship” that wouldn’t “go off the rails when we have differences of opinion.”

Chinese leaders have been less outspoken, but scholars with close ties to the government say they don’t anticipate current disputes to turn into major problems.

Disagreements are ever-present, but there are “very few chances that they will lead to the actual change in the relationship,” said Zhu Feng, professor with School of International Studies at Peking University.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will likely be the first trip wire. Washington has approved a $6.5 billion package that includes helicopters, PAC-3 air defense missiles, and a possible design study for building submarines.

The weapons announcement has sparked repeated complaints from Beijing, which regards the self-governing island democracy as its own territory to be unified by force if necessary. China has responded to previous Taiwan arms sales announcements by suspending military contacts.

A Chinese missile test on Monday is already being interpreted as a deliberate show of anger over the sale, according to analysts.

That was Beijing’s way of “showing it has not only the determination, but the means to protect national security and China’s core interests,” the official Global Times newspaper quoted Chinese missile expert Yang Chengjun as saying.

The launch adds to steps prompting Pentagon concern, including China’s repeated confronting of U.S. Navy surveillance ships in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s new military capacities “appear designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region,” the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, said in testimony before Congress on Wednesday.

A meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, possibly coming in May, also threatens to disrupt ties.

China regards the 74-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner as a separatist and protests loudly each time he meets with a foreign head of state. Beijing has punished foreign leaders who meet the Dalai Lama with monthslong rifts in bilateral relations, even canceling a major summit with the European Union after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met him in December 2008.

Obama had put off a meeting until after his visit to Beijing last December, enduring criticism from rights groups in hopes of winning goodwill from Beijing. Instead, China has continued ratcheting up pressure over Tibet and this month pulled two Chinese films from the Palm Springs International Film Festival after failing to force organizers to withdraw a documentary about the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

Trade disputes, meanwhile, have re-emerged as an irritation after fading while the U.S. struggled to contain its domestic economic woes. Already, Obama has responded to pressure from industry groups by slapping antidumping duties on Chinese-made tires and steel pipes, while China’s massive trade surplus with the U.S. continues to fuel criticisms over alleged currency manipulation.

The frictions also come amid rising doubts over China’s help in resolving disputes with North Korea and Iran that had won Beijing sympathy among some in Washington.

China this month said it opposed new U.N. sanctions against Tehran, while communist North Korea continues to boycott China-sponsored six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear programs. Such attitudes are bound to further alienate administration officials still stung over the Chinese delegation’s perceived snub of Obama at December’s climate talks in Copenhagen, and criticism that the president downplayed human rights concerns during his visit to Beijing last year.

China’s economic success and rising global clout have convinced its leaders that they can continue defying Washington, but that could prompt a backlash, said Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“If the Chinese Communist Party regime continues on the path that Hu committed himself to … then 2010 will bring rockier moments to Beijing-Washington relations,” Friedman said.