The Challenge of China

Relations between the United States and China have turned chilly in recent months as the two countries wrangle over Taiwan, Tibet, Iran and China’s continued manipulation of its currency.

President Obama is right to press Beijing to behave more responsibly — toward its own people and internationally. China is certainly pushing its sense of grievance too far and underestimating the fear and resentment its growing power is provoking in Asia and the West.

There is little hope of progress — on the global economy, global warming or Iran’s nuclear ambitions — unless Washington and Beijing work harder to manage their differences.

President Obama’s decision last month to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion in helicopters, Patriot missiles and other defensive items elicited a particularly harsh reaction: Beijing has publicly threatened to punish American arms companies that sell to Taiwan, presumably by cutting off access to China’s huge market.

The sales could not have been a surprise to China’s leadership. Mr. Obama told President Hu Jintao of his intentions at their summit in November in Beijing. The arms were part of a package approved by former President George W. Bush, and Mr. Obama left out the most controversial items: F-16 jets and diesel submarines.

Rather than encouraging Taiwan’s independence, as Beijing claims, the arms sales will give Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, the confidence to continue his efforts to improve relations with the mainland. It is absurd for China to think that any Taiwanese leader would not want to bolster his country’s defenses when Beijing is modernizing its arsenal and stationing more than 1,000 missiles across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing’s threat to punish American companies is a dangerous game, especially at a time when criticism is rampant — around the world and on Capitol Hill — about China’s unfair trade practices.

Beijing is also complaining bitterly about President Obama’s planned meeting this month with the Dalai Lama, warning it would “damage trust and cooperation” between the two countries. American presidents have regularly met with the respected Tibetan religious leader. And China’s leaders would have more chance of calming tensions in Tibet if they sought serious compromise with the Dalai Lama, who has advocated greater autonomy for the region, not independence, as Beijing speciously claims.

China is alienating not only the United States but also France, Britain and Germany by resisting tougher United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran. Beijing’s view is frustratingly shortsighted. Any conflict over Iran’s nuclear program would drive up oil prices and disrupt China’s purchases.

The Obama administration is smart to try to line up backup suppliers for China — talking to Saudi Arabia and others — as part of its bid to get Beijing to support tougher sanctions.

The administration also was smart not to overreact when Beijing declared that the Taiwan arms sales will “cause seriously negative effects” on contacts and cooperation between the two countries. Administration officials expect the Chinese to cancel some high-level meetings. But they say they are working to ensure that midlevel military exchanges continue and that this year’s summit in Washington with President Hu goes forward.

American officials say they see signs that Beijing doesn’t want to push things too hard. Outside experts worry that China may overplay its hand. That would not be in anyone’s interest.