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China’s growing arrogance

China’s growing arrogance

Remember how I said 2010 would be a rough year for U.S.-China relations?

The first shoe to drop was Google’s announcement that the privacy of Chinese human rights activists using its email software had been violated, and that cyberattacks on its servers had been traced to within China. 

Now, China is expressing furious anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan — threatening unprecedented actions in response, including sanctions on U.S. companies, and hinting darkly of a broader unwillingness to cooperate with American diplomatic priorities (read: North Korea and Iran). Military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and China now seems to be off the table, and deputies-level talks will be suspended.

Truth be told, China hadn’t been and probably wouldn’t be super helpful on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, but the direction the relationship is taking is worrying. In February, President Obama is supposed to meet with the Dalai Lama, and that is sure to provoke further ire in Beijing.

Obama administration officials had been expecting some blowback from the arms sales, and are downplaying China’s reaction, but I wonder if even they see Beijing as upping the ante. Is this going to be the usual loud, public show of anger, followed by a return to business as usual? Or is China feeling its strength and looking to demonstrate that it can force the mighty United States to change course?

I detect a bit of arrogance in Beijing right now. Most recently, Colum Lynch reports, China sent a third or fourth-tier diplomat to U.N. discussions over Iran’s nuclear program. At the climate talks in Copenhagen in December, not only did China seem to renege on promises it had made earlier, but Premier Wen Jiabao famously snubbed other top world powers by sending his deputy to a high-level meeting (I’m told by one participant that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was especially angry about the slight). This kind of thing may not make headlines, but it shapes other countries’ willingness to make concessions and accommodate China’s interests at the margins.

China is going to learn sooner or later that the famous line from Spider Man — "with great power comes great responsibility" — applies to real-world superpowers as much as it does to fictional superheroes.  Let’s just hope it’s sooner.