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Can U.S-China ties weather perfect storm in 2010?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Google “perfect storm” in 2010 and it is looking increasingly likely that U.S.-China relations will pop up as a top search result.

Even before the U.S. Internet giant’s troubles with Chinese hacking and censorship came to a head this week with Google’s threat to leave the Chinese market, some long-standing political and economic disputes loomed over bilateral ties.

“This is going to be a really ugly, turbulent year with China,” said Dean Cheng, a China analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

President Barack Obama enjoyed a honeymoon with China for much of 2009 as Washington and Beijing tried to set aside differences over Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and China’s currency policies to combat the global economic crisis.

In short succession, however, those issues and new ones, including the cyber-security threat from China underscored by Google Inc’s troubles, are set to roil ties this year as the United States gears up for congressional elections.

“This year the United States won’t be like last year when it comes to human rights, political control and the Internet,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international politics at Renmin University in Beijing.

“Then add to that, we have military problems, Taiwan, the Dalai (Lama), climate change -- so there will certainly be ructions in China-U.S. relations,” he said.

Taiwan and Tibet -- regions where separatist ambitions vex Beijing -- could move to the front-burner with Obama having approved a package of Patriot air defense missiles to Taiwan and is set to meet the Dalai Lama as early as February.

LIMITS OF COOPERATION

Google’s case cuts across many sore spots with China: freedom of expression, intellectual property protection, industrial and military espionage, industrial policy and market access.

Citing attacks on its infrastructure originating from China, and access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Google announced on January 12 it would no longer continue censoring Internet search results in China and that it may quit the country.

Troubles are resurfacing along many old fault lines at a time when Americans are questioning why that vaunted Chinese help on global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation by Iran has not really materialized yet.

“I see whole lot of quid and not a whole lot of quo,” aid Cheng.

The limits of cooperation were driven home in December with China’s snub of Obama at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao huddled with other developing country leaders and sent an underling to see the U.S. president.

The Eurasia Group consultancy says a mismatch between U.S. calls for more Chinese help on global issues and China’s reluctance to step up -- and incompatible economic policies -- make U.S-China ties the biggest political risk of 2010.

ROLLER COASTER

Former George W. Bush administration official Mike Green said the Obama administration erred by overstating its reliance on Beijing -- making China “the central kingdom and us the tributary state asking for their help.”

Concessions in 2009 such as shelving an Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama and arms sales decisions on Taiwan, were made to get Obama off to a good start with China, including a smooth November summit with President Hu Jintao in Beijing.

“But what happened was the Chinese were not cooperative at all,” said Green, now at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, confirms Obama will speak out strongly on Internet freedom in the wake of the Google case and meet the Dalai Lama this year.

But bilateral ties are better than headlines suggest and regular contact between Obama and Hu as well as high-level dialogue will help narrow differences, he said.

“Obviously, when you’re going through a period when you’re having a strong disagreement, the appearance is (that) the relationship is challenged,” Rhodes said.

“Our point has been that our relationship with China is and should be mature enough that we can have disagreements, strong disagreements,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“We’ll voice those disagreements. It need not derail areas where we can cooperate,” Rhodes he added.

Shi said bilateral spats seem worse than they really are because 2009 was a smooth year. China will react strongly on Taiwan and Tibet but try to get them out of the way before Hu’s visit to the United States later in the year, he predicts.

“The reality is U.S.-China is always a roller coaster,” said Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum/CSIS think tank in Honolulu.

“There’s always going to be speed bumps. The question is ‘How low do we go?” said Cossa, who said he thought the two countries could avoid a damaging plunge in ties this year.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing, editing by Philip Barbara

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