The Obama administration is taking a harder line with China in advance of this week’s visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
The tougher approach includes the possible sale of fighter jets to Taiwan and the reported sheltering of a Chinese dissident at the U.S. embassy, and is intended to counter presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s criticism of the administration.
Obama, at a White House press conference on Monday, refused to confirm that activist Chen Guangcheng was being protected at China’s U.S. embassy — an issue likely to dominate Clinton’s talks — but scolded Beijing on human rights and promised the issue would be raised.
“It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system,” Obama said.
The tougher actions and tone on China come after criticism from Romney, who argues that Obama has been too soft with Beijing.
Romney over the weekend pressured Obama to protect Chen, the activist thought to be seeking asylum at the U.S. embassy.
On his first day in office, Romney promises, he would label Beijing a currency manipulator as a means of closing a trade imbalance. He’s also used China’s growing holdings of U.S. debt to argue that Obama has driven the United States into debt and made the country weak with regards to China.
“President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home,” Romney wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in February timed for a state visit to Washington by Xi Jinping, who is expected to be China’s president next year.
When the Obama administration last September declined to ship new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, Romney said it was “yet another example” of Obama’s “weak leadership in foreign policy.”
On Friday, the White House signaled a shift in its Taiwan policy, indicating in a letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that it could provide new F-16 fighters to the country. The letter set the stage for internal talks at the Pentagon over a possible sale, something analysts said seemed motivated by Romney’s positioning.
“The firmer line on China established by Republican candidate Mitt Romney may have given President Obama the need and the opportunity to show more resolve through selling advanced F-16 aircraft,” said Patrick Cronin, an expert in Asian-Pacific security issues at the Center for a New American Security.
It’s a significant shift for the White House, which previously had taken the position that Taiwan’s existing fighters could be improved to defend the island from mainland attack.
“The Obama administration is now on record as saying there’s a fighter gap and that the U.S. is committed to basically making sure the Taiwanese get new fighters,” said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
The Obama administration insists the letter to Cornyn did not represent a shift.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the letter on Taiwan “is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed.”
“We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place,” Vietor said in an email.
The administration has also sought to get tougher with China on economic issues.
In March, the United States along with the European Union and Japan filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization against China’s efforts to block exports of “rare earth materials” used to make everything from cellphones to flat-screen televisions.
The United States argues that the export restrictions by Beijing gives China an unfair advantage in the global marketplace. More than 90 percent of all rare-earth materials are mined in China.
The WTO case, Taiwanese arms sales and the recent drama surrounding Chen will all be front and center during this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks, led by Clinton and Geithner.
They come at a sensitive time for Bejing, which is preparing for a new wave of leaders to take control of the Communist Party at the end of this year and is now embroiled in a great political crisis thanks to the fall of Bo Xilai, a rising party star embroiled in charges of corruption and money laundering.
With a series of issues fighting for attention, the possible sale of fighter sales to Taiwan could give Washington a critical bargaining chip in the talks over Chen.
China has used the issue of military sales to Taiwan as a way to pressure American diplomats during previous bilateral talks, knowing the issue is assured to raise the hackles of decision makers in Washington, noted Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. Policymakers in the White House and on Capitol Hill have “stuck rigidly” to supporting Taiwan, he added.