Page last updated at 05:04 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

The careful choreography of China-US ties

The FedEx Panda Express
Black and white diplomacy: Two US-born giant pandas are heading to China to take part in a programme for endangered species

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Two goodwill ambassadors are on their way from Washington to Beijing.

With their big eyes and cuddly looks, pandas Tai Shan and Mei Lan add a somewhat lighter note to an increasingly tense relationship between Washington and China now mired by arms sales, cyber attacks, threats and warnings and talk of currency rates.

The White House confirmed on Thursday that the expected meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama would take place later this month at the White House.

Beijing, which accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan independence, had suddenly warned just days earlier that such a meeting would seriously undermine Sino-US ties, even though President Obama had already reportedly made it clear that he expected to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in the future.

The meeting was postponed in 2009 because the White House did not want to undermine Mr Obama's Beijing visit and his meeting with China's President Hu Jintao.

Positive co-operation

Meanwhile, munching on apples and pears, the US-born giant pandas Tai Shan and Mei Lan returned home to participate in a breeding programme for the endangered species.

Dalai Lama
Barack Obama will welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House in February

Their return is an example of the positive co-operation that does take place between the Chinese and American governments.

The pair were supposed to return home two years ago under an agreement between the two countries. They were delayed because zoo-goers in the US had grown so fond of the pandas and because the pair were not ready yet to participate in the programme.

"Tai Shan and Mei Lan not only represent the crystallisation of American and Chinese co-operation to preserve pandas but also the friendship of the Chinese and American people," said Xie Feng, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Washington.

It's a rare nicety by a Chinese official amidst an escalating war of words between that seemed to have started in December at the climate talks in Copenhagen. While President Obama seemed to get a lot of the blame for failing to turn around the situation, many participant said that China took such a tough position that it torpedoed the talks.

I don't think that either country can afford to simply walk away from the other
Robert Gibbs
White House spokesman

Then came cyber attacks against Google, which the internet giant blamed on Beijing. They were followed by a surprisingly tough speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on internet freedom, during which she said that countries or individuals which conduct cyber attacks should face condemnation and consequences.

China warned that the Obama administration's support for Google was endangering relations.

Last week, the Obama administration announced plans to sell Taiwan approximately $6.4bn of arms. This was the third instalment of a package of arm sales started under President George W Bush.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own, suspended military ties with the United States and also threatened to retaliate against the individual firms selling the arms.

And brewing slowly is what could be a tense exchange over China's currency, which Washington and other Chinese trading partners say is kept undervalued to increase the country's trade surplus.

Staying sanguine

But despite all the tension, no-one in Washington is fretting yet.

Chinese women march past Tiananmen Square to celebrate 60 years of communist rule (file images from 1/10/10)
Neither China nor the US has made any moves to surprise the other - yet

China's reactions so far have been mostly part of its usual repertoire of diplomatic outbursts - expected knee-jerk reactions to key issues that are sensitive to China and against which it must protest.

But Washington's behaviour too has so far remained within the realm of what China knows it should expect.

While all US presidents since George HW Bush have met with the Dalai Lama - as a signal of Washington's commitment to human rights - the US does not intend to recognise Tibet's independence.

And Washington may have sold arms to Taiwan in the past, but it still follows a one-China policy.

In other words, there is no threat to China's strategic interests, which is why US officials know they can remain sanguine about China's behaviour.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the two countries could work together and still disagree on issues both in public and in private.

"I don't think that either country can afford to simply walk away from the other. That's not what we would do, and I don't think that's what anybody expects them to do either."

Growing impatient

Still, China experts in Washington are starting to wonder why Beijing has felt the need to ratchet up the pressure all of a sudden over all the issues at once.

One view is that China feels buoyed by the US's financial meltdown, while simultaneously wanting to flex its muscles to project power internally.

The Chinese leadership also believes that the Obama administration needs China's co-operation more than ever before on issues like climate change, North Korea and Iran and thinks therefore that it can afford to play tough.

Experts are watching carefully for any sign indicating that the ground is shifting. The clearest sign of all would be if China moved away from simply trying to water down or delay sanctions on Iran to actively blocking or vetoing a UN resolution.

That would signal that while Washington has continued to respect China's red lines on Tibet and Taiwan, China has not reciprocated, failing to see how central the Iran issue is for Washington and its allies in the Middle East.

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