Don't be surprised if the United States and China start rattling each other's cages again, and this time, perhaps seriously. The Obama administration triggered this latest round by announcing on Friday a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. For Chinese leaders, this is the worst affront, since they consider Taiwan part of China. They retaliated immediately, mainly by announcing sanctions against unspecified U.S. companies involved in the arms sale. Similar byplay has occurred many times before, but never at a time when American fortunes seemed on the decline and Chinese prospects so bright-and never before with Chinese leaders at once so self-confident, even arrogant, about their international power, yet still so insecure and paranoid about their internal control over political and ethnic dissidents.
The cage rattling won't come close to blows, but it will unsettle and unnerve international affairs, and ignite a new and damaging testing of great power wills. Count on this tug of war to block mutual cooperation on stifling the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and to further sour ongoing trade and investment disputes and charges of Chinese Internet censorship, and whatever else turns up. Most worrisome, it's not at all clear that Chinese and American leaders have thought strategically about their next moves and how to keep the situation within bounds.