China’s indignant reaction to the announcement of US plans to sell weapons to Taiwan appears to be in keeping with a new triumphalist attitude from Beijing that is worrying governments and analysts across the globe.
From the Copenhagen climate change conference to Internet freedom to China’s border with India, China observers have noticed a tough tone emanating from its government, its representatives and influential analysts from its state-funded think tanks.
Calling in US Ambassador Jon Huntsman on Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said the US would be responsible for “serious repercussions” if it did not reverse the decision to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion worth of helicopters, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles, minesweepers and communications gear. The reaction came even though China has known for months about the planned deal, US officials said.
“There has been a change in China’s attitude,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior National Security Council official who is currently at the Brookings Institution. “The Chinese find with startling speed that people have come to view them as a major global player. And that has fed a sense of confidence.”
Lieberthal said another factor in China’s new tone is a sense that after two centuries of exploitation by the West, China is resuming its role as one of the great nations of the world.
This new posture has befuddled Western officials and analysts: Is it just China’s tone that is changing or are its policies changing as well?
In a case in point, one senior US official termed as unusual China’s behavior at the December climate conference, during which China publicly reprimanded White House envoy Todd Stern, dispatched a Foreign Ministry functionary to an event for state leaders.
Another issue is Internet freedom and cybersecurity, highlighted by Google’s recent threat to leave China unless it stops Web censorship.
At China’s request, that topic was left off the table at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank and co-chairman of the event, told Bloomberg News. Analysts say a combination of hubris and insecurity appears to be driving China’s mood.
On one hand, Beijing thinks that the relative ease with which it skated over the global financial crisis underscores the superiority of its system.
On the other, recent uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang have fed Chinese leaders’ insecurity about their one-party state. As such, any perceived threat to their power is met with a backlash.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington Wang Baodong said, “China’s positions on issues like arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet have been consistent ... as these issues bear on sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are closely related to Chinese ... interests.”
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