BEIJING (Reuters) - “Ride on a tiger and it’s hard to climb down,” goes a Chinese saying that is proving apt for Beijing’s quarrels with Washington this year, when swollen ambitions at home are driving China on a harder tack abroad.
China’s outrage over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama’s planned meeting with the Dalai Lama has shown that, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing is growing pushier in public.
In past decades, a poorer, more cautious China greeted U.S. weapons sales to the disputed island with angry words and little else.
Not now, as China enters the Year of the Tiger in its traditional lunar calendar cycle of talismanic animals.
The Obama administration last week announced plans to ship $6.4 billion of missiles, helicopters and weapons control systems to the self-ruled island Beijing calls its own. China threatened to downgrade cooperation with Washington and for the first time sanction companies involved in such sales.
Beijing this week also condemned Obama’s plan to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader reviled by China.
China’s loud ire adds to signs the country is becoming surer about throwing around its political weight, growing along with an economy soon likely to whir past Japan’s as the world’s second biggest, though it will still trail far behind the United States.
Behind this assertiveness are domestic pressures likely to make it harder work for China’s leaders to cool disputes with Washington and other Western capitals.
“There is this paradox of increasing confidence externally and lack of confidence domestically,” said Susan Shirk, a professor specializing in Chinese foreign policy at the University of California, San Diego.
“There’s also what I consider a serious misperception of the country’s economic strength and how that translates in power.”
Chinese citizens and powerful constituencies, including the military, have been told through state media and leader’s speeches that the nation’s rising power would bring the nation greater international respect and reach.
“Staunch and cool-headed, battling the roaring waves,” said one headline in the People’s Daily, celebrating President Hu Jintao’s role in fighting the financial crisis.
Having pulled through the global downturn with 8.7 percent growth in 2009, China’s leaders face pressure to meet those expectations, or risk seeing their authority eroded.
Well-placed analysts do not expect Sino-American friction to spiral into full-blown confrontation. Both sides have too much at stake, economically and politically.
But China’s stirring home-grown pressures will discourage Beijing from quietly stepping down over Taiwan and Tibet, and could encourage harder positions over trade disputes, exchange rate shifts and climate change policy, where national pride and prosperity are seen by many as threatened.
“These perceptions of strength create expectations on the part of the Chinese public of how their leaders will behave internationally,” said Shirk, who served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration.
“It’s too early to say there’s been a strategic shift,” she added. “But clearly it’s going to be a difficult period for relations with the United States.”
China’s top-down political system gives the ruling Communist Party immense power to drive foreign policy.
But that power is not unconditional.
As revolutionary Communist ideology has sputtered, and social controls loosened by market reform, appeals to patriotic pride and national revival — “prosperity and power” — have become pillars of Party authority.
China’s leaders must in turn heed public reactions in crafting foreign policy, especially dealing with volatile subjects such as Taiwan and Tibet, seen by most Chinese as unquestionably parts of their country.
“It’s almost like a positive feed-back loop that puts China in a position where it can’t be seen as weak or compromising, because people have had it drummed into them that China can’t be weak or compromising,” said Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center, an institute in Washington, D.C.
With China boasting robust growth while Western economies floundered, those public expectations have swelled.
In a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (pewglobal.org) last year, 41 percent of Chinese respondents said the United States was the world's leading economic power. The same number, 41 percent, named their own country, China -- almost double the number who named it in 2008.
The U.S. gross domestic product was actually worth $14.2 trillion in 2008, while China’s was worth $4.6 trillion — for a much bigger population — according to the respective statistics of each country.
The domestic pressures bearing on China’s leaders are clearest and loudest on the Internet, which the government says has 384 million users.
Nationalist calls for tough steps against the United States, Japan or other countries echo online at times of tension, and can reach beyond what officials deem acceptable.
“The Chinese government does pay careful attention to opinion on the Internet, and these troubles with the United States will affect that public opinion,” said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
A Chinese public opinion poll last year organized by the Sydney-based Low Institute for International Policy found 50 percent of respondents thought the United States was a threat to their nation’s security. Younger Chinese citizens were more likely to support that view.
“The U.S. view that this will all be a passing squall could be out of date,” said Liu, who formerly worked as a government adviser. “China’s expectations for itself are changing.”
Powerful arms of China’s state could also bolster a harder stance against the West.
China’s Communist Party leaders keep a tight leash on the country’s military.
But after over two decades of near unbroken double-digit percentage growth in the official defense budget, People’s Liberation Army officers have become more public about their expectations, including for a tough stand on Taiwan.
Major-General Jin Yinan of China’s National Defense University said in a Communist Party newspaper last month his government would have to punish the United States if it went ahead with selling new arms to Taiwan.
“Our only choice is vigorous retaliation,” he wrote in the Study Times, the newspaper of the Central Party School.
Whether China really does take counter-steps awaits to be seen. The government has so far not specified any penalties on the U.S. companies selling the arms.
Nor have officials even hinted at broader trade and economic hits at the United States, steps that could maul China’s own economic health, alarm international investors, and turn public feeling against the government.
But abandoning the threats of sanctions could also prove humiliating at home and abroad.
“China has few palatable options for economic coercion,” wrote Thompson in a comment on the arms sale dispute.
Editing by Jerry Norton