The latest showdown between Google and the Chinese government could put President Barack Obama’s administration in a tricky situation just as US relations with Beijing appear to be improving.
Google said on Tuesday that Beijing wanted it to end its practice of automatically redirecting customers in China to its Hong Kong website, which it adopted this year when it announced it would stop self-censoring its Chinese search engine.
As Google’s operating licence for China expires this week – and has not yet been renewed – this latest confrontation could lead to the formal departure of Google’s website from the Chinese market.
If Google does end up closing its Chinese operations, the US administration will probably come under pressure to take a stronger stance than it has so far.
US administration officials have for months signalled that Google’s dispute with China is primarily an issue for the company, rather than one requiring high-profile intervention by the US government.
While Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, announced in a speech in January that internet freedom was now an issue of foreign policy concern, US-China relations remain dominated by more traditional issues such as Beijing’s build-up of its military, China’s allegedly undervalued currency and the US’s drive for sanctions against Iran.
After a meeting with Hu Jintao, Chinese president, at the weekend, Mr Obama focused his remarks on China’s reluctance to date to invite Robert Gates, US defence secretary, to Beijing, and on Washington’s desire that China condemn North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean ship in March.
Mr Obama’s recent invitation to President Hu to pay a state visit – he will be only the third foreign leader to make such a ceremonial trip during the president’s time in office – is a further sign of the importance the White House gives to good US-Chinese relations. President Hu has accepted the invitation.
The view from China, though, is rather different.
Google’s initial announcement in January that it would stop censoring web searches made on its Chinese search engine was widely assumed, within the country, to have been taken in collaboration with the new US administration.
The news also came at a time when US-China relations were going through a rough patch, buffeted by tensions over the Copenhagen climate change talks, the sale of arms to Taiwan by US companies and a meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
However, since then, ties between the two governments have improved sharply.
And, with the disputes earlier in the year behind it, the Obama administration may well feel reluctant to pick a new fight with China.