Obama predicted to come out swinging

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama has adopted a moderate - yet vague - policy towards China in his first year, leaving many Chinese analysts guessing whether it may toughen up this year when the two countries are forced to show their stances on many issues such as trade and Taiwan.

Obama is the first US president to visit China in his first year of office; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even included China in her first foreign trip in February.

The message in the beginning of last year was clear: George W. Bush's administration brought Sino-US relations to a high, but for the new administration, China has been moved to an unprecedented central position in America's foreign policies.

The first round of ministerial-level talks in the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue took place in Pittsburg in July, and US officials visited China one after another, including Chinese critic, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Obama agreed to an itinerary tightly scripted by China on his state visit, and held his tongue on thorny issues such as human rights and Tibet. Instead he called for a 'positive, comprehensive and co-operative relationship' with China, and signed a joint declaration covering the widest range of areas yet from trade to regional security, and included a line that 'respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core' of Sino-US relations.

But it does not mean smooth sailing ahead, especially when issues resurface.

'To China, the development of Sino-US relations was overall satisfactory last year,' Professor Jin Canrong from Renmin University said. 'But last year the United States needed China, and had stayed away from difficult issues.

'This year we will see the true colours of Obama's China policy.'

A rebounding economy and Obama's falling ratings at home is likely to lead to a tougher stance on China. Arms sales to Taiwan, growing trade disputes, the censorship issue highlighted by Google's threat to pull out from China, and Obama's possible meeting with the Dalai Lama all could eat into the goodwill.

The wordy descriptor 'positive, comprehensive and co-operative relationship' - instead of the previous punchier labels such as 'responsible stakeholder' or 'strategic competitor' - further highlighted Obama's intention to be vague on defining the Sino-American relationship in November, leaving room for further tweaking this year, Jin said.

But Jin and many other Chinese analysts believe that whatever fluctuations there are this year, they will not upset the basic stability of relations, since both sides will seek a pragmatic solution.

'We cannot expect Obama to take a confrontational stance towards China,' Chen Jian , professor of history at Cornell University, said. 'Between China and the US, there is no fundamental conflict now. Thirty years after the normalisation of relations ... you'll find China and the US are dealing with each other on a broad range of issues, and on a very fundamental level, the shared concerns are from very large international issues.'

Indeed, from restructuring the international financial order at the Group of 20 meetings, to tackling climate change at the Copenhagen conference and defusing the threats from Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, the United States is looking to - and relying on - China for increasing participation.

'Obama came to the presidency when there is no need to consider whether China is a strategic partner or competitor, China is a fellow stake holder. China and the US, in the fundamental sense, are in the same boat,' Chen added.

Echoing Jin, Beijing-based blogger Michael Anti, with experience working in American media, said it was difficult to say bilateral relations had improved or worsened in the past year since the most glaring point about Obama's China policy is that he has not set a tone for ties.

'In terms of economic issues the two are working together for a solution. But on the whole they are still feeling out each other,' Anti said. 'Both sides are still not used to China being such a strong player.

'And even though Obama's visit to China was considered a success here, it wasn't back in the US.'

Despite calling for Beijing to relax internet controls, Obama's failure to press on more sensitive issues during his visit had drawn the ire of human rights activists not only in the US, but also China.

Outspoken artist and blogger Ai Weiwei was very disappointed at Obama's performance.

'He has not only been weak towards China, but his whole foreign policy lacked vision and force,' Ai said. 'Few US presidents did not meet with Chinese human rights activists during their visits. We are not talking about an American value; this is a universal value. A cordial Sino-US relationship is a good thing, but he should have stuck to his principles.'

Obama's election win and inaugural speeches brought a buzz to Chinese chat rooms; his visit in contrast stirred little fuss.

The 'Obamania' frenzy died down in Beijing soon after he left - just as internet users shifted their attention from the US president to the 'red coat girl', a student who was filmed on television taking off her red coat behind Obama during the Shanghai town hall meeting.