Hold on to your hats — US-China relations are about to get ugly.
Obama may have turned out to be something of a diplomatic masochist, but even he has his limits. Having been rolled in China and dragged through the mud by the Chinese in Copenhagen, his serenity in dealing with Beijing over the past year appears to be giving way to a combination of indignation and frustration, and a desire to reassert US dominance in the face of China’s new triumphalism.
Last week, Hillary Clinton was dispatched to Asia with a simple message for the region: 'America's back'. That wouldn't have been music to Chinese ears, though the impact of her message was dulled somewhat by the fact that she canceled her trip to attend to a more urgent matter on the other side of the world, and, ironically, never made it past Hawaii. Welcome back.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Administration is putting the finishing touches on a massive arms package for Taiwan. At the very least, the deal looks set to contain several hundred advanced Patriot missiles, which, once deployed, would represent a significant qualitative improvement on the ballistic missile defences presently fielded by Taiwan. Read More
Whether or not the package also includes the advanced F-16 fighter jets that have long been at the top of Taipei's wish-list, or the diesel submarine components that Taiwan needs for its own limited area denial strategy, is as yet unclear. My guess is that it will depend on Beijing's willingness to make a few juicy concessions of its own.
Finally, as if to underscore his newfound delight in poking Beijing in the ribs, President Obama is apparently also preparing to tee up a meeting with the Dalai Lama, a favourite old stunt in Washington that never fails to arouse the passionate, sometimes truly venomous, reproach of the Chinese Government, and in particular, its indefatigable Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
With any luck, all of this will conform to recent historical experience and be no more than a brief downturn in relations. Every president since Ronald Reagan has had to contend with a crisis in Sino-US relations near the beginning of their term – Bush Snr had Tiananmen, Clinton had the Taiwan missile crisis, and George W Bush had the EP-3 incident – before setting differences aside in the interest of a solid economic relationship.
But there's also a risk that this episode might be the start of something new, the opening moves in a new era of rivalry and tension in Sino-US relations, which many have long been expecting. You don't need to be Thucydides to recognise the potential for combustible political relations in the presence of an established hegemon and a rising challenger.
Indeed, the intellectual ground in Washington seems to have been shifting on China in recent months. Although we've been fretting about it for a while here in Australia, in the US, a number of prominent commentators – mainstream ones, not just the hard-cases from places like the American Enterprise Institute – have only just begun to question the bizarre but conventional expectation in Washington that a stronger, more prosperous China would also be more cooperative.
As the true strategic insignificance of Afghanistan becomes more obvious, there are signs that many are beginning to reckon with the extent to which the growth of Chinese power has eroded, and threatens to further erode, America's position in the regional and global order.
Paul Krugman is agitating for a trade war with China over its undervalued currency, and Congress is all ears. Roger Cohen, normally a starry eyed optimist, predicts 2010 to be a year of 'rising protectionism, suspended military dialogue, Iranian discord, human rights disappointments and wars of words.' Even Thomas Friedman, globalisation's biggest fan, thinks the US should see China's rise as its twenty-first century Sputnik moment, a challenge against which to define America's own national project.
For Canberra's sake, as much as anyone's, let's hope the coming months are no more than a passing chill, and not the beginning of a long cold winter.
Photo by Flickr user RichardLowkes, used under a Creative Commons license.