The Call

Beijing’s fine balance

Beijing’s fine balance

By Michal Meidan 

The Senate bill that aims to punish China for holding down the value of its currency and that is now in the hands of the House will not trigger a trade war between China and the United States (as feverish speculation has suggested). That said, as both Beijing and Washington head toward political transitions in 2012, politicians will have to take tough stances on sensitive issues to please domestic audiences-while trying to keep bilateral relations stable. Maintaining its footing between these sometimes opposing demands will become increasingly challenging for Beijing as its campaign season revs up.

China’s leaders aren’t formally campaigning the way U.S. presidential candidates do, but jockeying for the country’s top political positions is underway. Current leaders, as well as the younger crop they hope to promote, are therefore vulnerable to criticism from hardliners within the government, as well as from an increasingly nationalistic public. China’s expanding economic clout, combined with a sense that American primacy has reached its end, is fuelling calls for more assertive responses to perceived provocations from Washington. In the run up to the Senate vote, Beijing therefore made every effort to lobby U.S. lawmakers to reject the bill. And once the bill had passed, Chinese politicians were compelled to express their displeasure vociferously. Government spokespeople slammed the bill as a protectionist move that could hinder the global economic recovery, while the state-run media denounced Washington’s attempts to use the yuan as "a scapegoat for the U.S. politicians’ incompetence."

Now that Beijing’s rhetorical dues to its people are paid, though, it is unlikely to rock the boat further. By retaliating with currency devaluation or a trade war, Beijing could embolden lawmakers in Washington to push the bill forward. Instead, Beijing reckons that as things stand there’s only a slim chance that the bill will become law. Even if the bill moves forward, China’s leaders will likely wait for President Barack Obama to either water it down or veto it altogether. That is, Beijing will give the White House a chance to uphold the tacit bilateral agreement to keep cool.

Such conciliatory logic prevailed around the $5.9 billion arms sale to Taiwan that the United States announced last month. The Obama administration agreed to refurbish the F-16 jets it sold to Taiwan in 1992, but did not sell the island the latest model of the fighter plane, as some in both Washington and Taipei had hoped. China’s response was low-key: Beijing called off a few military-to-military dialogues but did not sever ties (as it did after the previous announcement, in January 2010), despite strong calls at home to be more assertive. As long as Washington keeps its side of the bargain, Beijing can get away with such moderation.

But appeasing nationalistic voices while keeping bilateral ties on an even keel will be increasingly difficult for Beijing in the coming year, as contentious issues are likely to emerge. Presidential elections in Taipei in January could rattle nerves in both Beijing and Washington, as might flare-ups in the South China Sea. Particularly as the two countries grapple with an uncertain global economic outlook and try to coordinate their approach to the Middle East, any or all of these issues could make the campaign season acrimonious.

Michal Meidan is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.