By YUAN PENG
Some differences might appear, but the framework of Sino-U.S. relations will not change after President Barack Obama's inauguration
Since establishing their diplomatic relationship in 1978, China and the United States have gotten used to the undulations in their bilateral relations. When former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came into power, bilateral relations always showed sharp fluctuations.
But this time is different. During the U.S. presidential campaign last year, the topic of Sino-U.S. relations rarely came up. Instead, each candidate stressed the importance of the China-U.S. relationship and the need to maintain its stability. Therefore, the general opinion is that the framework of the Sino-U.S. relationship will not change significantly after Barack Obama enters the White House.
A stable bilateral relationship
Thirty years after diplomatic normalization, the bond between China and the United States has become pretty strong. The roles in their relations have also changed from "non-enemy and non-friend" to "stakeholder," and then to the current "constructive cooperator." The two countries now communicate at all political levels. Bilateral trade volume has grown from nearly zero to about $350 billion in 2007, creating real and deep interdependence. Moreover, the two countries have begun to explore military and security cooperation on issues like antiterrorism and the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. Holistically speaking, the Sino-U.S. relationship is mature and stable.
During President George W. Bush's administration, his China policy was generally accepted by both Republicans and Democrats. Obama and the Democratic Party mainly focused their criticism on Bush's policies concerning antiterrorism, Iraq, Russia and the European Union (EU), not his Asia-Pacific policy. Judging from Obama's security and economic teams, his agenda will be listed in priority order, starting with rescuing the economy, withdrawing troops from Iraq, dealing with the changing situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mending U.S. relations with Russia and the EU. Therefore, Obama's China policy will follow the principle of continuity.
The Obama team's views on China are fairly practical and rational. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all show no extreme attitude toward China. Obama's Asia policy team includes many China experts, whose opinions are mostly practical and objective.
China believes the two sides have significant opportunities for cooperation. In the security area, Obama faces many challenges. Many of them, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, require cooperation with China. Moreover, on many global issues such as climate change, energy, environmental protection and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, China and the United States have wide space to cooperate.
Since the Cold War ended, every new U.S. government has displayed the same pattern of behavior. Presidents entered office with a hard stance on China, then fell back to a more rational position after one or two years and actively developed the Sino-U.S. relationship. The Obama team is practical about China, meanwhile, academics and public opinion have created a positive atmosphere for bilateral relations.
There are four variables that are worth paying attention to.
The first is the change in the U.S. administration. Obama's victory was of historic significance to American politics, and his opinion on China is still very hazy. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was aware of the importance of the Sino-U.S. relationship, which is why he worked to build a constructive strategic partnership with China. His wife Hillary Clinton also recognizes the significance of bilateral ties, having once called it the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century in Foreign Affairs magazine. But there is also the possibility that Hillary Clinton will try to step out of her husband's shadow by pushing a different policy toward China.
Biden is playing a very special role. He is a well-known expert on foreign affairs in Washington, and Obama chose him to be vice president based on his diplomatic experience. But Hillary Clinton as secretary of state complicates the situation, as her position has a greater influence over foreign affairs. Therefore, whether or not the three leaders are united will affect U.S. foreign policy, including China policy.
The second variable involves changes in government structures. The first change is with the U.S. Congress. The general election was not only a personal victory for Obama, but also a victory for the Democratic Party, which now has large majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. A Democratic White House and Congress will streamline the political process. Whether the Obama administration wants to push forward the bilateral relationship, or tries to pick a quarrel with China, it will likely receive absolute support from Congress.
Relations among governmental departments also change with each new presidential administration. The U.S. State Department, Department of Defense and National Security Council have a history of fighting for dominance in policymaking. Which department gains the upper hand will affect the U.S. China policy. Entering the 21st century, other departments like the Department of the Treasury, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security and the various intelligence agencies are also playing more important roles.
The third variable is the shifting American political landscape. The Democratic victory resulted from public rejection of the Bush administration's policies as well as demographic changes in society. Non-white people now make up 34 percent of the total U.S. population, up from 23 percent 10 years ago. In addition, aging baby boomers are putting more pressure on the social welfare system. Beleaguered manufacturing and industrial sectors are gaining influence and calling for protectionist trade policies. All these changes will greatly affect Sino-U.S.trade and economic relations. Obama does not want to be labeled a trade protectionist, but he has to do something to soothe domestic emotions.
The fourth variable is the changing international environment, especially the world financial crisis, economic recession and other rising global issues.
The Wall Street storm hit more than the financial field. It has damaged the real economy and global economic health. And it is far from over. The Obama administration will therefore put economic recovery at the top of its agenda. If China can help Obama in this endeavor, the new president will be happy to promote and push forward China-U.S. relations. Otherwise, their bilateral relationship will be challenged.
On global issues like climate change, energy and environmental protection, the Obama administration will try to maintain dominance. It will also have growing expectations for China in these areas.
The top risk is Sino-U.S. trade and economic relations. Both countries face economic challenges. Obama will be busy bailing out the market, stimulating domestic employment and improving living standards. In the meantime, the Chinese Government will engage in solving problems like unemployment among recent college graduates and rural workers, revitalizing the economy, maintaining economic growth and increasing domestic demand. Concerns on both sides will inevitably jeopardize bilateral trade and limit the flexibility of their policies.
The Obama team has made a list for China. If it cannot be fulfilled, Obama's China policy will harden. The list demands that China continue to purchase U.S. national debt, increase investment in the International Monetary Fund and strengthen coordination on reforming the China-U.S. financial system. Based on its own economic and political interests, China can only satisfy some of these requirements, which will leave an unfavorable first impression on the Obama administration.
The Democratic Party represents American workers who have lost many jobs as corporations move their operations overseas. They must press Obama harder to protect their interests. China's labor standards will come under scrutiny after topics like currency devaluation, product safety, protection of intellectual property rights and further opening financial markets.
Diplomacy will be another area with potential for disagreement. The Obama administration will first focus on shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, then consider repairing U.S. relations with Russia and the EU and continue negotiating with North Korea and Iran over nuclear issues. The United States hopes China will play a constructive role and be a responsible big country on these issues. How much Beijing can share these burdens with Washington will be a touchstone with which Obama tests the relationship. The U.S. Government can also use diplomatic issues to distract attention from the economy. Based on this, the Obama administration might increase its demands-for example, asking China to send troops or capital aid to Afghanistan-while continuing to pressure China on its relations with Myanmar and Sudan. Therefore, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries could become turbulent.
Human rights and ideological issues are still prominent, but now manifest themselves in a different way. Currently, these issues center on the soft power contest between China and the United States. Obama is trying to restore the U.S. image and its hegemonic position in the world to protect American values. The potential for conflict between the two countries will not lessen in these fields.
(The author is Director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary Insternational Relations)