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UPDATED: May 17, 2009 NO. 20 MAY 21, 2009
A Good Start
China-U.S. relations forge ahead in the first 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency

Since the end of the Cold War, new U.S. administrations have all introduced changes to U.S.-China relations after their inauguration. The Obama administration is no exception.

A distinctive feature of Obama's China policy is that unlike those of his predecessors, it can deal with U.S.-China relations free from burdens. Since China was not a hotly contested issue in the presidential election in 2008, Barack Obama did not have to deliver any "China commitments" to American voters as a newly elected president. In general, three factors tend to greatly affect the Obama administration's policy toward China.

First, the global financial crisis is taking a toll on the U.S. economy. In this context, the development of relations between the United States and China, the world's most important trade partners, is essential to Obama's endeavor to restore public confidence in both the U.S. economy and the world economy.

Second, Obama has vowed to bid farewell to former President George W. Bush's hard-line policy in favor of embracing "smart power" diplomacy. How to cooperate with China on a series of global and regional issues and persuade China to support America's policy on international cooperation is one of the factors crucial to the White House's efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, nuclear proliferation and extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Third, core figures on Obama's foreign policy team, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, are all in favor of a moderate policy toward China. They are expected to continue with the Clinton administration's "engagement policy" of the 1990s.

Given these factors, the Obama's China policy has exhibited a number of salient features since his inauguration 100 days ago.

First, the policy hopes to incorporate China into its efforts to bring change to America's diplomacy. It encourages China to cooperate with the United States on global and regional issues to expand the foundations for their common interests and make their bilateral relationship global. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao pointed out at their first meeting on the sidelines of the London financial summit on April 1 that both countries are willing to make joint efforts to build a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship in the 21st century."

The Obama administration will continue to uphold the pragmatic policies Clinton and Bush adopted toward China and will not disguise the two countries' human rights disputes. However, respecting each other's core interests, strengthening dialogue and exchange and properly resolving disputes and sensitive issues will hopefully become basic points of consensus for both countries.

It seems that the Obama administration did not do well in its China policy at the very beginning. During his confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner accused the Chinese Government of "manipulating" the renminbi's exchange rate, drawing strong criticism from China. Fortunately, the controversy soon calmed down when Obama and Hu discussed the issue in a telephone conversation. The maritime confrontation between China and the United States over the U.S. surveillance ship USS Impeccable once again created tension in the two countries' security relations. While the conflict highlighted the strategic complexities of China-U.S. relations, its quick settlement demonstrated the Chinese and U.S. governments' constructive attitude toward resolving disputes.

China and the United States have adjusted their dialogue mechanisms, becoming even more determined in pursuing regular, high-level dialogue and consultation. At their meeting in London, Obama accepted Hu's invitation to visit China in the second half of this year, the first year of his presidency. Clinton visited China on the last leg of her Asian tour, her first foreign tour as the U.S. secretary of state. The frequent dialogues between Chinese and U.S. presidents and top officials signal that the two countries' political relations will continue to improve.

Since the inauguration of the Obama administration, China-U.S. relations have developed against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and economic slowdown. Their collaboration in dealing with the most severe financial crisis since World War II serves as a major driving force for the world's lasting prosperity and stability. Addressing the Asia Society in New York on February 13, Clinton referred to the Chinese aphorism that says, "When you are in a common boat, you need to cross the river peacefully together," as she described the importance of China-U.S. relations. Her reference was vivid and accurate.

China and the United States made major progress in their relations in the first 100 days of Obama's presidency. Their heads of state met with each other; the U.S. secretary of state and the Chinese foreign minister exchanged visits; they agreed to upgrade various former dialogue mechanisms to the comprehensive mechanism of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogues; and they announced in late February the resumption of military exchanges, which were suspended late last year over a multi-billion-dollar U.S. arms package for Taiwan.

Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming visited the United States in late April. Chinese buyers led by the minister provided the sluggish U.S. economy with orders worth more than $10 billion. Obama has expressed appreciation for the continued improvement in relations across the Taiwan Straits and for the progress in cross-Straits talks, signaling that the strategic sensitivity of the Taiwan question has been substantially reduced. The chances of "Taiwan independence" forces dragging China and the United States into war have become increasingly insignificant. All these moves show that China-U.S. ties got off to a good start in the first 100 days after Obama took office.

Since Obama has not appointed all his cabinet officials, detailed policies on China-U.S. relations have yet to be worked out. Who will lead the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogues, and how will the dialogues be carried out? How will they balance "China's responsibility" in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with America's commitment to transfer technologies for energy conservation and emissions reduction to China? How will they strengthen exchanges in reforming the global financial supervision system? How will economic stimulus plans be coordinated in keeping with emerging economies' growing say in international financial institutions? China and the United States need to demonstrate greater sincerity and make greater efforts to address these shared concerns.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University

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