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Why the Google.cn Issue Won’t Ruin Sino-US Relations

January 21, 2010

Among China watchers in Washington, DC , the big news today revolved around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s speech on Internet Freedom. Given at the Newseum in downtown DC, Clinton railed lambasted governments and individuals who use communication networks like the Internet to lessen personal freedoms, human rights, and incite racial and political hatred. While some saw it as especially salient this week as Google decides whether or not it’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto can be upheld in its China operations, the bottom line is that no amount of verbal rhetoric or posturing can ultimately weaken the economic and regional security partnership of China and the United States.

Hillary Clinton has her ear to the ground on internet freedom.

Anticipating the Secretary’s speech today, the Vice Foreign Minister of China, He Yafei, tried to disentangle the Google.cn issue from overall Sino-US Relations. “The Google case should not be linked with relations between the two governments and countries; otherwise, it’s an over-interpretation,” he said, addressing a press conference in Beijing, then adding that “If foreign companies have different viewpoints with this regard, they should also seek solutions according to the law.”

But is this nothing new? Is the Vice FM correct in saying that this won’t hamper future relations? I think so and for a multitude of reasons. Primarily, President Obama has been extremely careful to lay down a good foundation upon which to build better Sino-US ties during his Presidency. I would think his scuttling of the human rights issue in Beijing, gentle refusal to meet the Dalai Lama before he met with Chinese leadership, and lengthy Asia trip extolling the virtues of the, what State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley characterizes as a “broad, deep, expanding and durable relationship.”

Also, we must consider the implications for a negative turn in Sino-US relations. Even coming from a hippie optimist like myself, a dip in relations would affect our domestic economic situation (China increased its foreign reserves by $453 billion last year alone), regional security situation (China is the chair of the Six-Party Talks, aimed at bringing North Korea back to the table on nuclear weapons talks), and cultural influence (the US benefits just as much from cheap Chinese imports as the Chinese do from McDonald’s, Nike, and knock-off Playboy t-shirts…they’re more popular than you think).

Clinton today made several strong statements. She said “We stand for a single internet, where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas and we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” But, she also said that “the United States and China have different views on this issue and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship [italics mine].” Strong statement and Global Internet Initiatives aside, the U.S. is, and will remain, willing to work cooperatively with China on issues as seemingly black-and-white as human rights. The bottom line is that the U.S. has to – considering global and regional power relationships, there is no other choice.

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