US President Barack Obama leaves legacy of deeper engagement with China
Continuing a series of stories on China’s relations with other G20 members ahead of next month’s G20 summit, the South China Morning Post looks at US President Barack Obama’s track record, what he’s likely to discuss with President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou and what to expect from the next US president
When US President Barack Obama leaves the White House in January, Beijing is very likely to hail him as an “old friend of the Chinese people” (OFCP), an accolade also bestowed on many of his predecessors.
It’s a semi-official title awarded by Chinese leaders or the state-controlled media to honour foreigners who have been long-time acquaintances or who have made outstanding contributions to the improvement of bilateral ties. Previous American OFCPs from the political sphere include former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Obama will surely top them all when it comes to the number of meetings with his Chinese counterparts in his eight years in office.
The G20 summit in Hangzhou from September 3 to 4 will be his ninth meeting with President Xi Jinping since Xi became head of state in 2013. Obama even topped that in his first term in office, from 2009 to 2013, meeting Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, 12 times, with six of those encounters at G20 summits, which were originally biannual events.
This will also be his third visit to China as US president, following state visits in 2009 and 2014. Add 2014’s separate “first lady tour” by wife Michelle Obama and their two daughters and the Obama family will equal the record set by George W. Bush, the US president who made the most China trips while in office.
Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman chair in China studies at the Centre of Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said increasing the depth, breadth and frequency of engagement with the Chinese government was an important Obama legacy.
On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Foreign Minister Wang Yi about Obama’s visit to Hangzhou for the G20 summit next month. The US State Department said in a statement that they also discussed appropriate responses to North Korea’s latest missile test.
Wang said the meeting between Xi and Obama at the G20 summit would be an important event in the Sino-US relationship and called for both nations to properly manage their differences.
Obama upgraded the US-China strategic and economic dialogue from his first year in office and close to a hundred ministerial representatives from both sides now meet annually, covering the most significant areas of the bilateral relationship. Chinese and American officials at all levels also meet throughout the year at multilateral events such as G20 meetings.
In Obama’s second year in office, 2010, China eclipsed Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy, behind the US, adding to the importance of a complicated Sino-US relationship some have dubbed the “great rivalry”.
Xi and Obama will have plenty to talk about at their third and last meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit next month, with possible topics of discussion ranging from areas of tension to opportunities for cooperation.
One area of geopolitcal deadlock is the South China Sea. Apart from all the rhetoric and legal debate surrounding the international arbitration ruling in July, the dispute over US military ships’ passage through China’s claimed exclusive economic zone was a key source of tension, said Jeff Smith, director of Asian security programmes at the American Foreign Policy Council.
As its military and economic power grew, China wanted to control more of its surrounding waters to guarantee its security needs, while the US felt it was in its national interests to minimise countries’ maritime claims and preserve its freedom to conduct military activities in the region.
“We have fundamentally different interpretations of our own rights,” Smith said. “I have not seen a way out.”
China’s furious reaction towards the planned US deployment of its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea is another source of tension. Faced with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the US stresses its commitment to regional ally Seoul, while Beijing views the move as a threat to its strategic space.
Cybersecurity, another long-standing irritant in the bilateral relationship, could also feature in their discussions, along with economic frictions over market access.
“These strategic tensions are impossible to solve,” said Shi Yinhong, head of the American Studies Centre at Renmin University. “But at least they can also talk about how to accelerate the implementation of the Paris agreement on climate change.”
At the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, the Chinese government did not respond positively to Obama’s climate change advocacy. But it adopted a more cooperative stance in following years, partly because of the appearance of further strains on the strategic relationship.
The clinching of the 2015 Paris agreement was a signature achievement of cooperation between Obama and Xi, the leaders of the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the principal “greenhouse gas” blamed for global warming. It was also a signal from Beijing that it wants to assume greater responsibilities in addressing global challenges, as also evidenced by its role in the formulation of the joint plan of action on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, fight terrorism and promote global economic growth are among other areas where they might be able to find grounds for cooperation.
China is eager for a bilateral investment treaty to be sealed soon, but it doubtful the Obama administration, entering lame-duck territory ahead of November’s US presidential election, will be able to achieve any progress on that front.
Kennedy said a hallmark of the Obama administration’s legacy regarding China was the effort to integrate China into international rule of law in every aspect of the relationship – economic, strategic and political.
However, in many Chinese eyes, the most memorable part of Obama’s diplomatic effort in East Asia has been America’s “pivot to Asia”, also described more recently as a rebalancing of its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region.
An optimistic atmosphere surrounded the Sino-US relationship at the time of Obama’s inauguration in 2009, with some observers characterising its importance by coining the term “G2”.
But Shi said that since then it had gone through a “continuously downward and disappointing period for both sides”.
Like previous US presidents, Obama had wanted a greater economic and foreign policy focus on Asia at the beginning of his presidency, said Euan Graham, international security director at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy. But while his personal commitment to the pivot remained, he had encountered difficulty sustaining that focus on Asia against a rising tide of global distractions, including the perennial tug of security crises in the Middle East.
America’s quick bounce back from the 2007-08 global financial crisis and China’s economic rise to world No 2 had strengthened the Obama administration’s determination to “return to Asia”, said Tao Wenzhao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies.
“At that time they realised they had a challenger that needed to be contained,” he said.
Then secretary of state Hilary Clinton, now the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, and then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell were the key figures pushing for the pivot in 2011. Its security leg called for 60 per cent of US Air Force and Navy forces to be positioned in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen regional alliances. On the economic front, a 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was to form a new free-trade bloc, excluding China, although that proposal has now fallen out of favour among US politicians. Politically, it aimed to promote democracy and human rights in the region.
Beijing has criticised the US pivot, and associated diplomatic and military moves from the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea, as a containment strategy aimed at China.
Graham said containment was unlikely to be the object of the policy because it was impossible, but China was certainly an element that was strategically central to the formulation of the pivot.
“Otherwise, if you took China away, there really wouldn’t be a compelling reason to make Asia the security focus for the US military deployment,” he said.
Kennedy said a containment strategy would be much more aggressive towards China in every facet of the relationship and although rivalry between the two sides had increased, the policy was not meant to be an effort to stymie China’s growth, reduce its influence in the region, or destabilise it politically.
“To some extent this is a consequence of China’s growing relative power,” he said. “It’s also clear that greater tensions are also a product of China’s more ambitious foreign policy goals and more assertive actions under Xi Jinping.”
In three months’ time the US will elect a new president – either Clinton or the Republican Party’s Donald Trump. They have both been talking a tougher position towards China.
“Obama has been widely criticised as being too soft and encouraging China’s ‘assertive expansion’,” Shi said.
If Clinton was elected, a continuation of current policy or a harder line towards China was on the cards, Graham said, with a US backlash against globalisation and economic development the main obstacle. Trump was harder to fathom, but the Washington establishment was unlikely to allow him to remain such a wild card for the world.
Although the strategic competition will only increase, no one sees the Sino-US power struggle tipping over into conflict or war.
“With the right leadership and policies on both sides, the US and China should be able to avoid a more precipitous decline in their relationship,” Kennedy said.
Despite their structural and ideological differences, the deeply intertwined economies of the two nations had made the US and China an interest community, which was very different from the cold war standoff between the US and the former Soviet Union.
“Their relationship can’t be too good; nor can it be too bad,” Tao said.
Sino-US relations timeline
1949 – The US does not recognise the People’s Republic of China following the end of the civil war, maintaining diplomatic ties with the Nationalist government that fled to Taiwan
1972 – Richard Nixon becomes the first US president to visit mainland China, and the two countries set out principles for further relations
1975 – US President Gerald Ford visits China and reaffirms Washington’s interest in normalising relations with Beijing
1979 – Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping becomes the first Chinese leader to visit the US
US President Jimmy Carter grants China full diplomatic recognition and accepts the “one-China” principle
1980 – New York City and Beijing become sister cities
1984 – US President Ronald Reagan visits China
1985 – President Li Xiannian becomes the first Chinese head of state to visit the US
1989 – US President George H.W. Bush authorises sanctions and freezes relations with Beijing after the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square
1995 – US President Bill Clinton allows Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the US, angering the government in Beijing, which orders its forces to stage missile tests near Taiwan
1998 – Clinton visits China and restates the US’s commitment to the principles of the three Sino-US joint communiques
2000 – The US-China Relations Act is signed, granting China the status of permanent normal trade partner of the US and paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001
2009 – US President Barack Obama visits China
2014 – During a state visit to China, Obama and President Xi Jinping issue a joint statement on climate change, pledging to reduce carbon emissions
2015 – The US opposes “further militarisation” of the South China Sea and calls on China to stop its reclamation efforts
Xi pays his fist state visit to the US since taking office