In the past two weeks, Chinese leaders have tangled with the United States over the following issues: Iran sanctions, climate change, arms sales to Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, cyberattacks, military modernization and exchange rates.
A single sentence in the Pentagon's 105-page Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) this week even elicited a Chinese reaction. The QDR report said China's military development raises "legitimate questions" about its future conduct and intentions. Pentagon planners have regularly made that point in the past, but Beijing immediately announced its "dissatisfaction" with the comment.
Those comments followed China's denunciation Tuesday of President Obama's plan to meet the Dalai Lama and its furious reaction last weekend to the administration's announced plans to sell some weapons to Taiwan.
The increasingly harsh Chinese attitude toward the United States has left U.S. officials and China analysts wondering where U.S.-China relations are headed.
At the State Department on Monday, spokesman P.J. Crowley seemed almost baffled by the strident Chinese reaction to the pending Taiwan arms sales.
"We're doing nothing different today than we did in 2008, than we've previously done," Crowley said. "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."
Similarly, the Chinese knew months ago that President Obama intended to meet with the Dalai Lama. They have long known that the United States wants tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. They are familiar with 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 recently to a new sense of Chinese self-confidence, stemming from its strengthened position in the world economy in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
"Some in the West have called it triumphalism," Lieberthal notes. "I think that's too strong a term. But [there's] some feeling that, '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.'"
Lieberthal, now at the Brookings Institution, says this new feeling of Chinese confidence follows decades of China feeling "down and out" and not fully respected as a global player. With the greater confidence, therefore, has come a greater willingness to assert Chinese national interests — on climate change policy, the global economy and security issues. And that means standing up to the chief Chinese rival on the global stage, the United States.
"The question is what they think they can get in that relationship," Lieberthal says. "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 will it be the Chinese tilting toward U.S. preferences?"
The list of outstanding issues is long. An early 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. U.S. and Chinese economic interests could soon be colliding.
"We are coming into 2010 with 10 percent Chinese growth and 10 percent U.S. unemployment," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group. "And those two 10s do not add up to 20. They are going to conflict with each other."
As politicians, both Democrat and Republican, take greater note of conflicts with China, U.S.-China policy could become a hot election issue.
"[In 2008], we voted for Obama or McCain with no interest in their positions on China," Bremmer notes. "I believe that that will never happen again. This relationship is going to become politicized, and going forward it is going to be key in determining how we think about candidates, how we think about U.S. policy."