Looking at his record sheds some light on US president-elect Barack Obama’s thoughts on China’s rise and his interest in both cooperation and competition with China.
In response to a question on the campaign trail, Obama said: “Increasingly, the center of gravity in this world is shifting to Asia ... Obviously China is rising and it’s not going away. They’re neither our enemy nor our friend. They’re competitors.”
He also said that “although the US should maintain a cooperative relationship with China, it should never hesitate to be clear and consistent with China where we disagree.”
Unlike his predecessors, Obama did not demonize China as “evil” and communist as a tool to feed xenophobia, boost protectionist sentiment or attack China’s trade surplus to pander to voters.
However, Obama vowed to push China harder to loosen the reins on its currency, improve its human rights record and end its support for repressive regimes in Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
This reflects his increasing maturity on US-China relations and shows that he sees China as a complex issue that involves trade, security, the environment, energy objectives, democracy, human rights, Tibet and military build up.
But with the US mired in both diplomatic and economic troubles and China’s growing clout in international affairs, Beijing’s value to Washington will likely outweigh issues such as democracy, human rights, Tibet and China’s defense buildup.
What is less predictable is whether, at a time of domestic crisis or international troubles, an Obama administration would be likely to accommodate China’s demands.
Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) once said: “Don’t pay attention to unfriendly remarks [that a US presidential] candidate might make about China during the campaign, because once elected, [he or she] will be friendly.”
Some specialists have identified a pattern among presidential candidates, who are wont to take a hard stance on China during the campaign and threaten to change their country’s policies toward Beijing, only to find after being elected that there is little they can change before being compelled to cooperate with the Chinese government on common interests.
As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan once criticized Jimmy Carter for normalizing relations with China and forsaking Taiwan; Bill Clinton accused then-president George Bush of cuddling with the butchers in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. George W. Bush later criticized Clinton’s policies, arguing that China was not a strategic partner but a strategic competitor.
However, it did not take long for China to become the US’ “partner” and a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics and economics.
Although it is hard to pin down a candidate’s opinions during a campaign, it will be interesting to see how Obama handles relations with China, since he is resolute in his belief that China’s rise is inevitable and relations between the two countries have nowhere to go but forward.
Obama is a pragmatist at heart — he sees China not only as an opportunity but also as a challenge. The nomination of his national security team — with Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, retired Marine General James Jones as national security adviser and Robert Gates staying on as secretary of defense — signaled that his China policy would be pragmatic rather than idealistic.