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US, China head for strained relations, analysts say

By John Pomfret
Washington Post / January 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The United States and China are headed for a rough patch in the early months of the new year as the White House appears set to sell a package of weapons to Taiwan and as President Obama plans to meet the Dalai Lama, US officials and analysts said.

The Obama administration is expected to approve the sale of several billion dollars in Black Hawk helicopters and antimissile batteries to Taiwan early this year, possibly accompanied by a plan gauging design and manufacturing capacity for diesel-powered submarines for the island, which China claims as its territory.

The president is also preparing to meet the spiritual leader of Tibet, who is considered a separatist by Beijing. Obama made headlines last year when the White House, in an effort to generate goodwill from China, declined to meet the Dalai Lama.

The expected downturn with Beijing comes despite a concerted effort by the Obama administration for closer ties. US officials have held more high-level meetings with their Chinese counterparts in the first year of this administration compared with the inaugural years of the four previous presidencies since relations were normalized with Beijing in 1979, records show.

“I think it’s going to be nasty,’’ said David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. That said, he added, “the US and China need each other.’’

“The US-China relationship is now far broader and deeper than any one issue alone,’’ said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We will have disagreements . . . but we have demonstrated that we will work together on critical global and regional issues, such as economic recovery, nuclear proliferation and climate change, because doing so is in our mutual interest.’’

Still, the impending tension comes at a sensitive time. After hammering out a wobbly political deal with China on climate change in Copenhagen, the United States still needs China’s help on three pressing international issues: Iran, North Korea and restructuring its economy so that its people consume more and export less.

China recently backed a toughly worded statement on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency but continues to oppose enhanced sanctions, which the Obama administration has signaled it will pursue in 2010.