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U.S., China tensions soar as accord is needed

President Barack Obama visits the Great Wall last November. The much-heralded visit helped to increase tensions between the world powers. (Photo: Getty)


 The rhetoric between the U.S. and China ratchets up from time to time, and with the Dalai Lama set to visit President Barack Obama on Thursday tensions are likely to be high this week. The exiled spiritual leader’s visit is only one of many issues that have plagued U.S.-Chinese relations.

“The U.S. and China don’t need each other, but they need a certain level of accord because resolution of many of the world’s most pressing problems ... depends on a level of agreement between the two countries,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

amNewYork takes a look at a few of these thorny issues.

Weapons sale

The U.S. has proposed selling helicopters and missiles to Taiwan, infuriating China, which considers the self-governed island a renegade province. “China has to protest these sales or they’ll lose face [with their people],” said Eric Harwit, a fellow at the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based organization set up by Congress in 1960 to help strengthen Asia-U.S. relations.

Bottom line: Experts agreed the sale is likely to go through, with minimal  damage to the relationship. “There’s diminishing trust on other issues,” said Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. “The arms sale is more a platform for a frustrated China.”

Dalai Lama

China views the Dalai Lama as a threat to its sovereignty over Tibet and Obama meeting with him as an insult. “China accepts the status quo of Taiwan as something tolerable,” expert Eric Harwit said. “In Tibet, they consider disruptions a threat to stability.” 

Bottom line: This meeting won’t severely damage relations.

Nuclear weapons

With nuclear saber rattling from Iran and North Korea, China and Russia can play a big role in trying to keep them in line by imposing sanctions and the specter of military might. “The U.S. doesn’t need China’s support, it needs its lack of opposition,” said Zachary Karabell, the author of “Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy.” It’s important for China to be on the U.S.’s side to effectively punish Iran, but that support may be hard to come by.

Bottom line: While China wants access to Iran’s oil and natural gas reserves, it will go along with sanctions to ensure its security.

Human rights and Internet freedom

China jails, hangs and keeps tabs on those who oppose the government. After the Google e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents were compromised, apparently by government-supported hackers, Google threatened to pull out of the country.

Bottom line: Google will most likely stay in China, a huge market, and the issue of cyber security will fade away, Harwit said. The human rights situation is not expected to improve, and it will continue to be a problem for East-West relations.

Economic issues

China has a lot invested in the United States, whether it’s almost $800 billion in U.S. Treasury notes, the most of any country, or its $9.6 billion stake in many American companies, including Bank of America, Apple and Coca-Cola.

Bottom line:
“China is too invested in the United States to see it fail,” Karabell said. The U.S. has to tread carefully not to further anger its Eastern lender.


The U.S. has renewed calls for China to revalue its currency, the renminbi, which economists argue is undervalued by 25 to 40 percent compared to other currencies. This gives China an unfair advantage in selling its exports.

Bottom line:  “They’re not going to do it as fast as we want,” but they will eventually revalue their currency, Karabell said.

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