US-China relations are complicated and expansive, characterized by unprecedented interdependence and potential for both deepening cooperation and intensifying competition.
The question is: will Barack Obama's China policy continue to serve American interests? Despite the shortcomings of his foreign policy with regards to China, President Obama has recognized this complex reality from the start, avoided any serious diplomatic crises, and succeeded in preserving regional stability.
In 1972, US President Nixon took the big step that opened China to the world after decades of isolation. Chinese scholars of American politics are fond of pointing out that rapprochement during the Cold War would have been much less likely, if not impossible, under a less conservative president. With Nixon's sterling reputation as a hardliner, his opponents were hard-pressed to accuse him of being “soft” or “selling out.”
Every presidential candidate since the normalization of relations in the late 1970s has inevitably felt the need to “get tough on China.” Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush criticized Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign. In 1992, President Clinton spoke harshly of President Bush's China policy which soured relations with Beijing. It took several years for the Clinton administration to get China policy back on track.
President George W. Bush got off on the wrong foot as well in 2000, calling China a “competitor” and “neither friend nor foe.” As the “China threat theory” gained prominence in some circles, Chinese policymakers and academics were alarmed by the Bush administration's rhetoric. It was only after 9/11, with the growing acceptance that China's cooperation was essential in anti-terrorism and other non-traditional security issues, that efforts towards greater engagement led to an improvement in US-China relations. During President Bush's two terms, China went from “competitor” to “strategic partner” to “responsible stakeholder.”
In contrast to the usual pattern, President Barack Obama got off to a good start. “This was as good a first year in US-China relations as we've ever had,” remarked former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who served the administration from 2008-2011. “He's been very clear and consistent about his commitment to a cooperative relationship,” while keeping his eye on the long-term interests of the United States.
What Obama did well
Along with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, President Obama initiated the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The S&ED is essentially an upgraded version of the Strategic Economic Dialogue started by the previous administration to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and global concerns. A mechanism for bringing together high-level representatives from Beijing and Washington, D.C. to focus on both short-term and long-term issues, the S&ED is an important institution for developing the ongoing partnership between the two countries. As China grows wealthier, stronger, and more assertive on the global stage, dialogues help promote cooperation and trust between senior leaders.
On economic and trade issues, Obama has been aggressive in pressuring the Chinese leadership on counterfeit goods, intellectual property rights protection, and cyber security. The administration has also successfully filed a number of complaints with the World Trade Organization to protect American manufacturing jobs from anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese tires in 2009 to illegal auto parts export subsidies and import duties this year.
Since the beginning of his term, the President pressured China on its currency values, although he did not label it a currency manipulator. Doing so would have been hypocritical, even though Beijing is manipulating its currency, given the fact that plenty of other countries have revalued their currencies many times over the years (i.e. Japan, Israel, Switzerland) without receiving the same label. Moreover, to single out China would risk a trade war and have negative repercussions for the next few years, while sacrificing long-term interests by making it more difficult to obtain Chinese cooperation on issues like Iranian nuclear weapons, North Korean nonproliferation, and territory disputes in East
and Southeast Asia. As China expert Kenneth Lieberthal puts it, the relationship with China “affects too many US interests to allow rhetoric and political one-upmanship to guide what you end up doing.”
Losing sight of the big picture
With American voters focused on the economy, the rhetoric of electoral politics obscures the bigger picture. US-China relations are complicated and expansive, characterized by unprecedented interdependence and potential for both deepening cooperation and intensifying competition. The question is: will Obama be a better choice for the future of bilateral US-China ties?
Chinese observers were pleasantly surprised that “human rights” did not make it onto the agenda during last week's debate. They have, however, become more suspicious of American intentions on a number of security issues, despite the concept of “strategic reassurance” promoted by former Deputy Secretary of State, Steinberg. The policy, designed to encourage Chinese cooperation on issues of mutual interest by mitigating distrust, was first undermined when the Obama administration continued arms sales to Taiwan.
Selling weapons to Taiwan is nothing new. But the Obama administration's “pivot to Asia”, later called “strategic rebalance”, raised concerns among Chinese analysts who see growing efforts to contain China's rise. As China's military power expands and becomes increasing assertive over territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US has sought to strengthen its alliances in the region through active participation in multilateral institutions, redeployment, and high-profile military exercises. Despite repeated claims that rebalancing is not aimed at China, it is clear that handling Beijing's growing regional influence is a key strategic issue.
Most recently, China has been disappointed by what it sees as partiality towards Japan in the Diaoyu – Senkaku Islands dispute. The US has been careful to avoid saying the islands are part of Japan's territory, taking “no position on the territorial disputes.” At the same, Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty states that the US will protect “the territories under the Administration of Japan” and Japan administers the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. This stance invites attacks from Chinese experts, some of whom assert that defending Japan over its claims would amount to an “illegitimate” and “unconstitutional” expansion of the treaty.
Rather than providing reassurance that China's rise is welcomed in the West and “China's peace and prosperity is in accordance with US interests,” strategic rebalancing has been characterized as inconsistent and incoherent, at worst bordering on deception. While Washington calls for more transparency about Beijing's strategic intentions, the Obama administration's continued policy of “creative ambiguity
”, hedging against aggression action from both China and its neighbors, is by definition opaque.
It is this logic that leads Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, to suggest
that even though Romney “would be more threatening to Beijing… his rhetoric would invite less illusion and misperception, which could in the end be less misleading and less frustrating.” Still, a less frustrated but more openly hostile US and China might lead to actions that would not be in the interest of either country. As Professor Shen also recognizes: “even if [the President] were to intend irrationally to hurt China, there's little chance he would actually be able to chart a path to do so in which the United States remained unhurt by its own actions.” Despite the shortcomings of his foreign policy with regards to China, President Obama recognized this complicated reality from the start, avoided any serious diplomatic crises, and has done well at preserving regional stability.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.