In Obama win, China sees key prize: stability

President Obama’s reelection was welcomed by China, as well as Japan and South Korea, as the region experiences sharpening tensions over territorial disputes.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
In this June 18 file photo, Chinese President Hu Jintao (r.) and US President Obama, take their places with other leaders for the family photo during the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Mr. Hu and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent congratulatory telegrams to Mr. Obama, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Barack Obama’s reelection as president, offering a familiar face and predictable foreign policy, was largely welcomed in Asia as an element of stability in a region where diplomatic tensions are sharpening.

“It is better for China to have stable relations with the US,” says Niu Jun, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “The Chinese government has been in close touch with the Obama administration for the last four years; communications are easier with counterparts you are familiar with.”

In Japan, currently locked in a fierce territorial dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islands, “a lot of people will feel relieved” at Mr. Obama’s reelection, says Hiroshi Meguro, who teaches international relations at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.

“He is more moderate, and people expect policy continuity to be maintained, which is especially important now that Japan has problems with China,” Professor Meguro explains.

The US elections attracted widespread attention in China: The topic was the top trending search term on Twitter-like platforms such as Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo, which saw 3.4 million tweets on the subject on Election Day.

Though no wide-scale opinion polls were conducted, anecdotally Obama seemed more popular among the Chinese public than Mr. Romney. In a BBC poll, the incumbent outpolled his Republican rival 3 to 1.

“I support the candidate who is friendlier to China, and that is Obama,” said Zhou Qiang, an accountant, as he returned to his office in downtown Beijing after lunch on Wednesday, soon after the election results became clear. “I hope he won’t hurt China’s interests in the future.”

US vote vs. China's leadership transition

Predictably, microblog commentators had some comparisons to make between the freewheeling US presidential election that unfolded just as Chinese leaders were preparing to open the 18th Communist Party Congress on Thursday, the culmination of a secretive leadership transition in which the Chinese public plays no part.

“Americans across the nation are voting,” tweeted Wu Shuilan. “But what about us? We all know the result before the voting starts; we are faster than them.”

But at an event organized by the US embassy in a fancy Beijing hotel, where US and Chinese citizens were invited to watch the election returns on Wednesday, even Chinese guests who had joined in the mock election by casting replicas of San Francisco ballots were uncertain whether the exercise was relevant to China.

Comparing the two countries’ political systems was like “comparing mature apples and unripe oranges,” argued Huang He, a student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of American Studies. “And even when the orange is ripe it won’t be an apple.”

“We want to develop as fast as possible, but we need social stability,” agreed fellow student Li Mingbo. “Social stability is more important than a democratic system at present,” he insisted, voicing an official opinion that is widely shared among ordinary Chinese.

Stability, stability, stability

Stability, and the likelihood that Obama’s reelection will provide it in international relations, was important to diplomatic observers in Asia.

“The new President Obama will be like the old President Obama,” predicts Shi Yinhong, an expert on US-China relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “He will not abandon his moderate approach to economic rivalries and frictions” between the world’s two largest economies.

Nor does Professor Shi expect any change in Obama’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia. “He will continue to guard against, check, and even squeeze China’s strategic presence in Asia and the Pacific,” Shi forecasts.

“The US has won more friends in the region over the past four years and China has lost friends,” Shi worries. “That process of competition will continue.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao sent congratulatory telegrams to Obama, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Mr. Hu said in his message that China and the United States had made "positive progress" in their relationship over the past four years and that "the continued health and stable development of Sino-US relations suits the fundamental interests of the people on both sides, and is good for the Asia Pacific region and for world peace, stability, and development."

The view from South Korea?

The view from South Korea, which will hold its own presidential elections next month, is much the same.

“We don’t expect any changes in Obama’s foreign policy toward North Korea or Northeast Asia,” says Kim Dae-joong, a conservative columnist with the Chosun Ilbo, a Korean daily newspaper.

Not that Mr. Kim is especially happy with that, since neither the US, nor any of the regional powers involved in six-party talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, has had any tangible success so far.

Obama’s second term “will just be a continuation of his first-term policy” toward the Korean Peninsula, says Kim. “And I don’t think he has any greater chances of success than he did in his first term.” 

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