Paul Pillar

Chinese Touchiness

The White House played things about right in the face of the expected and usual snit by China regarding a meeting with the Dalai Lama: to proceed with the meeting—although not in the Oval Office—and to disregard Beijing's complaining. The complaint has no merit, no matter how much China whinges about interference in internal affairs. The Dalai Lama renounced a political role for himself a few years ago, he travels and speaks now as only a spiritual leader, and neither he nor President Obama favors anything like a secession of Tibet. If the conversation between the two leaders stirred up Chinese complaints, so much the better for getting increased attention to the cause of religious and cultural freedom.

So much the better also for distinguishing between what should and should not be respected regarding the sensitivities of foreign governments. There is a tendency, in assessing a relationship such as the one between the United States and China, to speak in terms of whether the overall relationship is, or should be, warm, cool, or whatever, while delving less into the merits of individual issues that affect the temperature. More attention ought to be paid to whether particular positions are or are not reasonable, even if it is just a matter of the other government griping about this or griping about that.

Part of a successful U.S. relationship with China certainly involves respect for China as a great power. But that does not mean respect for either behavior or statements that are petulant and unreasonable. The world has been watching China grow up slowly to true great power stature, on matters ranging from managing its currency in a way that would make it a feasible international reserve currency to shouldering responsibilities in multilateral peacekeeping operations. In some areas China still has growing up to do. It should not expect to be able to cavil like an adolescent if it wants to be respected as a grown-up great power.

Sometimes there seems to be no limit to how thin the Chinese skin can get about some things. The other day the official news agency Xinhua had a commentary complaining about a remark that House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce had made about the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. Royce criticized the visit, which should have pleased the Chinese. But he further explained that part of the problem with the visit was that it needlessly complicated relations among Japan, South Korea, and the United States as they try to coordinate policy toward China; Xinhua found this observation “really incredible.”

Perhaps we can find in recent Chinese handling of relations with Taiwan some hope for realistic behavior even where touchiness has long prevailed. Taiwan is another issue on which China has for many years made an unreasonable demand of other governments: that they cannot have normal relations with the government of a territory that is independent in every practical respect, that the People's Republic of China has never owned, and that for more than a century no Chinese government has ruled except for four years after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Earlier this month, however, for the first time ever senior officials of China and Taiwan met in their governmental capacities to discuss trans-strait relations. A grown-up thing for both governments to do.