LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
China had its own section in that list of threats to U.S. security. The report said China's military modernization program poses a challenge to its neighbors. It also noted China's quote "aggressive cyber activities" and its efforts to broaden control over sea lanes and airspace. The critique comes at a time of already rising tensions with China, and tough talk out of Beijing on a wide range of issues.
NPR's Tom Gjelten has details.
TOM GJELTEN: Just about every day, lately, brings some new friction in U.S.-China relations. Take this week's 105 page Pentagon report on U.S. defense issues and priorities. A single sentence in their said China's military development raises legitimate questions about its future conduct, a point Pentagon planners have made before, but that little mention was enough to prompt an immediate objection broadcast over Chinese radio.
Unidentified Man: China has expressed dissatisfaction over statements in a new U.S. defense report on its military buildup.
GJELTEN: Also, yesterday China denounced President Obama for planning a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Last weekend, the Chinese government hit the roof over the administration's plans to sell weapons to Taiwan. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley seemed almost baffled by the Chinese reaction.
Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, Department of State): We're doing nothing different today than we did in 2008, than we've previously done, based on our evaluation of Taiwan's needs. We do provide them articles that we think contribute to Taiwan's defense. What happened here was, I don't think, a mystery to China.
GJELTEN: The Chinese also knew months ago that President Obama intended to meet with the Dalai Lama. They've long known that the United States wants tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. They've known about U.S. concerns over China's cyber-activities and climate change policies. But on each of those issues in the past few months, the Chinese have become more difficult.
Kenneth Lieberthal, who advised President Clinton on China issues, attributes the country's increased assertiveness to a new sense of self-confidence. After all, this is the country that actually got stronger as a result of the global financial crisis.
Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (Brookings Institution): Some in the West have called it triumphalism. I think that's too strong a term. But some feeling that, you know, in the last two years we've done very well, and it's hard to find anyone else who has. And now people are really paying attention to us.
GJELTEN: Lieberthal, now at the Brookings Institution, says that new feeling of Chinese confidence follows years, decades, of China feeling down and out, not fully respected as a global player. So, with this greater confidence, a greater willingness to assert Chinese national interests - whether it's on the climate issue, the global economy or on security. And Lieberthal says that means standing up to the chief Chinese rival on the global stage, the United States.
Mr. LIEBERTHAL: The question is what they think they can get in that relationship. Given that we want to work together, on balance, how much is that going to be the U.S. tilting toward Chinese preferences, and how much, on balance, will it be the Chinese tilting toward U.S. preferences as we seek areas where we can get a working consensus?
GJELTEN: The list of outstanding issues is long. One challenge will be to work out a proper economic relationship. China's growth has been largely driven by its booming export sector. Chinese goods are relatively cheap, so manufacturing has shifted to China, away from the United States. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, sees U.S. and Chinese economic interests colliding head-on.
Mr. IAN BREMMER (President, Eurasia Group): We are coming into 2010 with 10 percent Chinese growth and 10 percent U.S. unemployment. And those two tens do not add up to 20. They're going to conflict against each other.
GJELTEN: As politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike take greater note of conflicts with China. U.S.-China policy will become a hot election issue, Bremmer predicts, to a far greater extent than it was in the last presidential election, for example.
Mr. BREMMER: We voted for Obama or McCain with no interest in their positions on China. And I believe that that will never happen again. This relationship is going to become politicized, and going forward, it is going to be a key issue in determining how we think about candidates, how we think about U.S. policy.
GJELTEN: And there will be a genuine superpower rivalry. As the director of national intelligence pointed out on Capitol Hill yesterday, China is expected to pass Japan some time this year, to become the second biggest economy on the planet, rapidly gaining ground on the USA.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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