Barack Obama

Sino-US relations: A new round begins

Yun Tang looks at potential flashpoints in Sino-US relations in the coming years, when a second-term Obama administration will have to contend with a new leadership in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:56am


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If there is any truth in the fancy that ears will burn while their owner is being talked about, the collective ears of China must have been ablaze during the past few weeks." These words are from a commentary in the American magazine The Saturday Evening Post in July 1900, amid the Boxer Rebellion. Today, these words exactly depict the unprecedented spike in China-bashing rhetoric during the US presidential election campaign, which ended with President Barack Obama cementing a second term.

Pillorying China in a tense presidential debate attests to America's deep worries, as China's economic, political and military clout grows. Obama's victory will prevent disruptions to US foreign policy towards China, but it will not dispel all fears.

Meanwhile, in a striking coincidence, China will simultaneously anoint new leaders in the 18th Communist Party congress. How US-China relations will evolve under the helm of the new leaders concerns all. And the subjects that came up in the US presidential debates provided some clues as to how bilateral relations might progress in the next four years.

The struggling US economy was the primary concern; Obama immediately faces a "fiscal cliff" that threatens to drive the economy back into recession. The White House has to reach a budget compromise with Congress on tax increases and spending cuts to avoid it.

This pressing task highlights the bleak economic situation facing the second Obama administration, and makes promoting economic growth an urgent priority. In his first term, Obama brought more cases against China through the World Trade Organisation, charging it with unfair trade practices, but he didn't list China as a "currency manipulator", despite tremendous pressure to do so.

However, a second-term Obama might take a tougher stance against China over trade and economic issues. China has been rebutting US charges that it is rigging its exchange rate, while wanting more investment in the US, and is thus on high alert against protectionist policies. Undoubtedly, the next four years will see many altercations over trade, with the possibility of escalating tensions.

During the presidential debates, one focus was on strategy against Islamic extremism. During his first term, Obama directed the killing of Osama bin Laden, but radical violent extremism has not been extinguished.

China, which also stands firmly against the spread of such extremism, takes a different approach. With poverty arguably a hotbed for Islamic extremism, its economic success offers an appealing example for Southeast Asian nations to follow. While Islamic extremism has surfaced from Libya to Mali, China has stopped the flame from crossing the Hindu Kush and becoming a more influential ideology in populous Muslim countries in Southeast Asia.

And though security tensions in Asia were not emphasised in the US presidential debates, they will remain a thorny issue in US-China relations.

China has intensified its offshore push in the East and South China seas, causing tension with neighbouring countries. But in the territorial disputes between China and Japan at least, Washington has remained neutral, effectively putting out the fire on both sides. At the same time, the US and China have kept up close consultation in the military and security arena. On the Korean Peninsula, co-operation between the two is continuing. And with stable relations across the Taiwan Strait, a military confrontation between the US and China is unlikely in Obama's second term.

However, as China's military might steadily increases, the US would face some difficult choices if Beijing were to enforce its historical territorial claims by force. However, it would be in China's interests to manage the disputes diplomatically, as none of its neighbours, Japan included, wants to be an American pawn to contain China.

Undoubtedly, Sino-US relations will face unprecedented challenges during Obama's second term. But with the experience of four decades of mutual interaction, including during days of turmoil, both sides will try to find ways to co-operate.

The article from 1900 in The Saturday Evening Post adopted a sympathetic tone to the Chinese who suffered humiliation at the hands of Western powers in the Boxer Uprising. It concluded with an optimistic prediction: "China is known to contain many would-be reformers, some of whom are men of natural force and high character … the American mind can well afford to believe that China will suddenly and at no distant date assume an honourable place among the great nations."

One of those "would-be reformers" was Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the greatest reforms in Chinese history, which enabled China to "assume an honourable place among the great nations".

China's next leaders will carry on that reform, guiding the country in the next 10 years, including in its policies towards the United States. All politics is local, even in foreign affairs. China's rise can only be realised through a transition towards democracy and the rule of law, through the genuine ascendency of the social status of its own citizens.

Political reform is the key element during this transition, and the relationship with the US has a far-reaching domestic impact. Further tensions with Washington will become an excuse for conservatives to call for resisting a "Westernisation conspiracy"; amicable relations between the two will enable the reformists to take in more effective Western social norms and mores. It is not known whether the new leaders will enact bold reforms, but stable US-China relations will certainly support their efforts.

Meanwhile, it is reasonable to assert that "the American mind can well afford to believe" that there is no need to fear China's rise; it is still far from challenging the US' dominant role in world affairs, and friendly relations between the two will benefit people around the globe.

Yun Tang is a commentator in Washington.