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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obama takes guessing out of US-China ties

Here's a powerful analysis by the Straits Times US bureau chief Chua Chin Hon. It comes a bit late as it took a while to retrieve this article, and is related to the US-China talks that happened last month. Not too long ago I talked about how China was always the whipping boy in the global context. Today it's proving time and time again that few dare to overtly agree to disagree, when it comes to China. Even the big guns of the US have to plan what they say carefully to the Chinese.


Obama takes guessing out of US-China ties
Stress on cooperation, solidarity and mutual respect good for stability
By Chua Chin Hon, US Bureau Chief
Source - Straits Times July 29 2009

A UNITED States president's transition from candidate to commander-in-chief can be an unpredictable process. But one consistent trend in the post-Cold War era is the way they all 'mellow' on their China policy, ditching their fiery campaign rhetoric in favour of pragmatic policies.

Candidate George W. Bush, for instance, called China a 'strategic competitor' in 2000. President George W. Bush sang a different tune, especially in the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr Bush's predecessor Bill Clinton famously criticised George H.W. Bush for 'coddling' dictators from Baghdad to Beijing during the 1992 presidential campaign, only to become in later years a vocal advocate of engaging China via trade. Mr Clinton was instrumental in helping the mainland gain admission to the World Trade Organisation.

President Barack Obama is not only following in his predecessors' footsteps, but seems to be making the transition from candidate to chief diplomat faster, and with minimal fuss.

In his first major speech on China on Monday, the presidential candidate who had once castigated the Bush administration for not being tougher on Beijing's trade and currency policies was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a pragmatist statesman who stressed cooperation, solidarity and mutual respect. What this speedier transition means, observers said, is that both governments can spend less time second-guessing each other, a development that will hopefully create a more stable relationship in the near future.

Mr Obama directly addressed a nagging question that must be on the mind of some Chinese leaders.

'Let us be honest: We know that some are wary of the future. Some in China think that America will try to contain China's ambitions; some in America think that there is something to fear in a rising China,' Mr Obama told a gathering of over 200 top officials at the opening session of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington this week.

'I take a different view. I believe in a future where China is a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations; a future when our nations are partners out of necessity, but also out of opportunity.'

Mr Dennis Wilder, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Straits Times that Mr Obama's speech would likely be well-received in Beijing.

'US presidents haven't always talked about a 'strong' China in the past,' said Mr Wilder, who served as senior director for East Asian affairs on the US National Security Council in the last three years of the Bush administration. '(Mr Obama) also makes a clear statement that he doesn't view China as something to fear. (Beijing) will concentrate on that particular part of the speech.'

In the US, experts say there is growing acceptance of the kind of pragmatic China policy as espoused by Mr Obama. But it remains to be seen if cooler heads will indeed prevail in a future spat with China, be it over a new food scare or trade issue.

Many will no doubt point to the weakened US economy and China's growing clout as the real reasons for Mr Obama's conciliatory remarks. After all, China already holds US$800 billion (S$1.15 trillion) worth of US treasury bills, and is expected to buy more as Washington issues more debt to finance its economic stimulus programme.

That may be so, but the tone of Mr Obama's speech also suggests a shift in the way Washington approaches its old divisions and quarrels with Beijing. Instead of complaining about the ballooning trade deficit and the value of the Chinese currency, for instance, Mr Obama encouraged the Chinese to spend more and further open up its market to American goods.

Significantly, the US President also distinctly framed all the key issues on his agenda with China - economic development, climate change, clean energy, transnational threats - in terms of 'mutual interests' and 'global challenges', rather than mere American pre-occupations. This approach will clearly go down well with Beijing.

State councillor Dai Bingguo, the No. 2-ranking official in the visiting Chinese delegation, said the two countries are in 'the same big boat' despite the huge cultural and social differences that separate them.

But rhetoric will need to be matched with resolve. Chinese diplomats are fond of reminding journalists that one should pay as much attention to deeds as words. So Mr Obama's next move on China will be closely watched and measured against Monday's speech.

Almost as important as actions will be the sort of personal relationship Mr Obama strikes up - or does not - with Chinese leaders. Beijing will have no trouble understanding where Mr Obama is coming from on an intellectual basis, but the issue of 'personal trust' still matters to the Chinese leadership.

In that regard, former President Bush has set a high bar. His unwavering determination to attend the Beijing Olympics despite fierce criticisms from rights groups at home and abroad is well remembered in Beijing. A meeting between Mr Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the sidelines of April's G-20 Summit was described as 'business- like'.

Said Mr Wilder of Brookings: 'Every American president finds his own way in foreign policy. Mr Obama needs to get a certain level of comfort with China. That's certainly one of the challenges he faces.'