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Opinion: Will China Retaliate for the Dalai Lama Visit?

February 18th, 2010
02:30 PM ET

Editor's note: Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.

President Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama later today. Beijing, which has demanded cancellation of the event, has warned that it could damage already strained ties.

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/02/18/dalailama.blog.gi.jpg caption ="President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama in Washington D.C."]

Many think the Chinese are just bluffing. After all, Beijing's leaders have ranted in the past and not carried through on their threats.

But that was then, and this is now. Now, China's officials are feeling their oats and they are testing the new American president.

Most important, they are in the middle of a succession struggle as the so-called Fourth Generation leadership prepares to give way to the Fifth.

Hu Jintao, China's current leader, is slated to step down in 2012 at the 18th Communist Party Congress. The political maneuvering to succeed him is intensifying, and, as it does so, the country's external polices are becoming volatile.

At this moment, unfortunately, there is little room for compromise on matters involving the United States due in part to Hu's hardline stance.

Therefore, disagreements with Washington have become harder to control. We saw tough language from Beijing over, among other matters, Washington's support for Google in its dispute with China over internet policies, and the recent announcement of arms sales to Taiwan.

China watchers say that there are "stabilizers" in the relationship between China and the United States, and that statement may be true most of the time.

But during periods of increasing tension inside the Communist Party, those mechanisms may not function well. So little disputes can flare quickly. Since December, that is precisely what has been happening.

Many analysts often underplay the fundamental difference in values and outlook between the United States and China. In normal times, officials from both countries have been able to paper over differences and stress common interests. Yet transitions are almost always times of uncertainty, even in the most well-ordered of political systems.

They are especially perilous periods in China's, despite recent advancements in the institutionalization of Communist Party rules. Chinese leaders, in sum, have not been able to eliminate communism's systemic instability.

So look for China to retaliate for President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. The retaliation may not be immediate, and it may be subtle. But it is sure to happen.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon G. Chang.

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