WASHINGTON – The U.S-Chinese relationship, smoothed by mutual economic interest during President Barack Obama’s first year, has been rocked by new turbulence as the administration has sought to prove its commitment to human rights around the world.
After a harmonious beginning, the two governments are at odds over planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, American overtures to Tibet, and, now, the issue of Internet freedom that has been vividly raised by China’s treatment of Google.
After Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton complained in Cold War terms on Thursday about China’s Internet intrusions, Chinese officials shot back Friday that her remarks were “harmful to Sino American relations,” and demanded that U.S. officials “respect the truth.”
The exchange set off a diplomatic shuffle. Top U.S. and Chinese officials have huddled in a series of hastily convened meetings in Washington since Clinton’s speech to discuss the Google issue and “the broader aspects of our relationship,” Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said Friday afternoon.
Some experts believe that Clinton may have been too provocative when, in Churchillian tones, she lamented that “a new information curtain is descending over much of the world.” But her remarks, in a major, prepared address, highlighted the Obama administration’s hardening approach.
“We’re in for tough sledding for the rest of the year,” predicted David M. Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
While both countries want a stable relationship, diplomats and analysts worry that the expanding array of disputes could damage chances of Chinese cooperation on key U.S. strategic issues, such as sanctions against Iran, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the international effort in Afghanistan.
China holds the key to tough new U.N. Security Council action sought by U.S. officials and their European allies to dissuade Iran from continuing nuclear research they believe is intended for nuclear bomb-making know-how, a suspicion Iran has denounced as unfounded.
Analysts said the new frictions could affect cooperation between the two nations’ militaries, an initiative announced by Obama in a visit to China last November. They also could prompt the Chinese to rethink plans to take part in high-level meetings, such as Obama’s planned nuclear security conference this spring.
Last year, Obama administration officials, eager to begin their relationship with China on a positive note, focused early discussions on areas of mutual interest, and put off tougher issues.
But the more difficult questions – such as sensitive U.S. relationships with Taiwan and Tibet – have been stacking up. Meanwhile, the administration has been criticized by human rights advocates for not pushing more forcefully in its dealings with China and other countries, such as Iran.
The debate over Internet freedom seized world attention last week when Google complained of attacks on its network from China, and said it might shut down its Chinese language search engine if the government didn’t stop requiring that it censor searches.
But Clinton’s speech was the first in which the administration suggested that Internet freedom would be a key plank of its foreign policy. Clinton specifically criticized the Chinese and others for Internet censorship. And she suggested that defense against cyber attacks was a core issue of mutual defense for the United States and its allies.
“This was definitely a shot across the bow,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a White House National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration.
The initial Chinese reaction was to try to play down the speech, portraying the issue as a narrow commercial dispute. But the foreign ministry made an about-face on Friday, saying in a statement that the United States needed to “respect the truth and to stop using the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations.”