Will Obama push China harder?

He's been critical of monetary policy and has named human rights defenders to key posts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The United States and China will mark 30 years of normalized relations this week when Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visits Beijing, highlighting strengthened and diversified relations between the world's superpower and its emerging giant.

Mr. Negroponte – standing in for Condoleezza Rice, who canceled her Asia plans to follow events in Gaza – will toast an evolution in relations under President Bush from confrontation to cooperation. But as the Bush years come to a close, the questions will be more about the future than the past: Can the positive trajectory in Sino-American relations continue as the two countries navigate a global economic downturn? And can improved relations continue as a Democratic administration takes office that may be more prone to pressuring Beijing on human rights and monetary policy?

Chinese President "Hu Jintao is not known for effusive displays of any kind, but when he gave President Bush a great big bear hug [at a recent Asian-Pacific summit], it was a sign of the strong feelings about how good this presidency has been for US-China relations," says Charles Freeman, an Asia and US foreign-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "They feel they are going to miss Bush and are worried about the Obama administration on trade and other issues, particularly human rights."

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China's concerns stem from positions that Barack Obama took during the presidential campaign, as well as from comments by some of his top foreign-policy advisers. Mr. Obama was critical of China's monetary policy and called on China to stop manipulating its currency, the yuan. Some economists see that manipulation as an effort to keep down the price of China's exports and to maintain growth in a shrinking global economy.

At the same time, China has watched as Obama has named some outspoken human rights defenders to top diplomatic posts. Susan Rice, Obama's top foreign-policy adviser during the campaign and a fervent advocate of pressing China on its human rights record and on its influence in Africa, is Obama's choice as ambassador to the United Nations.

But Obama has also promised to redouble American diplomatic efforts and to favor engagement over confrontation with partners and adversaries alike.

For its part, the Bush administration, in its dealings with China, has opted for cooperation over confrontation. That has put relations in a positive state, analysts say.

"Obama will have a very positive framework to build on that has been gradually developed since the early days of the Bush administration," says Nirav Patel, an Asian expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "It's an important piece of the heritage the new administration will receive."

However, when the Bush administration took office in 2001, some officials disagreed on how to deal with China: It was a battle of "constructive engagement" against a more confrontational approach of "strategic competition." Richard Armitage, who was deputy to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, carried the day for the more cooperative approach and set the tone that would prevail through two Bush terms, Mr. Patel says.

A nonconfrontational approach helped resolve a standoff in early 2001, when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and landed on a Chinese island. However, it was 9/11 that cemented the Bush approach to China, says Mr. Freeman of CSIS.

"Officers in the People's Army were dancing a jig on Sept. 12," he says – "not in celebration of the terrible circumstances, but because in one stroke the tone of US-China relations changed," he adds. "It took the talk of strategic competition off the table, and from then on there was an effort to draw China in" on fighting terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other strategic security issues.

Using this nonconfrontational approach, US officials have made numerous visits to China during the Bush administration – in particular Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, as he's focused on monetary issues.

The administration's vision of managing China's rise as a global power was captured in a December 2005 speech by Robert Zoellick, then-deputy secretary of State (and now president of the World Bank), in which he called on the US to prod China down the road to becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international systems that govern global security and the economy.

"It is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China's membership into the international system," Mr. Zoellick said. "We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system."

One area where the US has worked closely with China – and where Obama is expected to continue close engagement – is with North Korea and efforts to dismantle its nuclear program. The six-party talks that Beijing has hosted reached an accord in 2005 under which North Korea would abandon its nuclear programs and give up its nuclear arms. But after many ups and downs, the agreement hit another snag in December over the means of verifying dismantlement.

Negroponte is likely to take up the North Korea stalemate when he visits Beijing, but it will certainly remain a top holdover issue for secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite the positive state of US-China relations, other issues besides North Korea – focused on the economy and human rights – are likely to challenge the upward trajectory.

With China's growth rate falling and unemployment of its restive workers rising, Beijing may be even less likely to heed American and international prescriptions for trade and the yuan.

A deteriorating economic picture could also stymie efforts to encourage China to use its close ties to Sudan and Burma (Myanmar) to influence the course of events in those places – in particular in Sudan's Darfur region.

Also looming on the horizon is the quieted but still-unsettled issue of Taiwan – the elephant in the room of US-China relations that some warn is the issue most likely to one day lead to a confrontation between the two powers.

A sudden China-Taiwan crisis could catch the US unawares and lead to a war that neither side wants, argue Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon, two scholars from the Brookings Institution in Washington, in their recent book "A War Like No Other." The prudent response, they argue, as China rises to become the world's second global power over the next two decades, is not to go on treating the potential flash point as if it were neatly contained.

Rather, they say, the US must address all issues with China, mindful of the impact on the only contention that could lead to armed conflict, which is Taiwan. (One indication that the incoming administration may be mindful of this perspective is the fact that James Steinberg, a former Brookings colleague expected to be named Mrs. Clinton's deputy at State, says in a praiseworthy blurb for the book that it offers a thoughtful assessment of "one of the most dangerous fault lines in the world today.")

Even on Taiwan, Freeman says, the Chinese leadership is appreciative of how the Bush administration has handled it – and worried about the impact of any change on the sensitive issue from a new American president who is popular with average Chinese.

"You have this uneasy situation for the leadership in which Obama is extremely popular with the rank-and-file Chinese," Freeman says, "but where officials are finding they feel more comfortable with Republicans."

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