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Cover Stories Series 2011> A Rewarding State Visit> Opinions
UPDATED: January 18, 2009 NO. 4 JAN. 22, 2009
Obama's China Policy
Some differences might appear, but the framework of Sino-U.S. relations will not change after President Barack Obama's inauguration


 OBAMA ON POWER: U.S. President Barack Obama's China policy is expected to follow the principle of continuity, though variables are worth paying attention to (XINHUA/AFP)

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.

Four variables

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.

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