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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Obama’s pragmatic view of China

December 24, 2008

By Yu Tsung-chi
Taipei Times
Wednesday, Dec 24, 2008
Looking at his record sheds some light on US president-elect Barack Obama’s thoughts on China’s rise and his interest in both cooperation and competition with China.
In response to a question on the campaign trail, Obama said: “Increasingly, the center of gravity in this world is shifting to Asia ... Obviously China is rising and it’s not going away. They’re neither our enemy nor our friend. They’re competitors.”
He also said that “although the US should maintain a cooperative relationship with China, it should never hesitate to be clear and consistent with China where we disagree.”
Unlike his predecessors, Obama did not demonize China as “evil” and communist as a tool to feed xenophobia, boost protectionist sentiment or attack China’s trade surplus to pander to voters.
However, Obama vowed to push China harder to loosen the reins on its currency, improve its human rights record and end its support for repressive regimes in Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
This reflects his increasing maturity on US-China relations and shows that he sees China as a complex issue that involves trade, security, the environment, energy objectives, democracy, human rights, Tibet and military build up.
But with the US mired in both diplomatic and economic troubles and China’s growing clout in international affairs, Beijing’s value to Washington will likely outweigh issues such as democracy, human rights, Tibet and China’s defense buildup.
What is less predictable is whether, at a time of domestic crisis or international troubles, an Obama administration would be likely to accommodate China’s demands.
Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) once said: “Don’t pay attention to unfriendly remarks [that a US presidential] candidate might make about China during the campaign, because once elected, [he or she] will be friendly.”
Some specialists have identified a pattern among presidential candidates, who are wont to take a hard stance on China during the campaign and threaten to change their country’s policies toward Beijing, only to find after being elected that there is little they can change before being compelled to cooperate with the Chinese government on common interests.
As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan once criticized Jimmy Carter for normalizing relations with China and forsaking Taiwan; Bill Clinton accused then-president George Bush of cuddling with the butchers in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. George W. Bush later criticized Clinton’s policies, arguing that China was not a strategic partner but a strategic competitor.
However, it did not take long for China to become the US’ “partner” and a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics and economics.
Although it is hard to pin down a candidate’s opinions during a campaign, it will be interesting to see how Obama handles relations with China, since he is resolute in his belief that China’s rise is inevitable and relations between the two countries have nowhere to go but forward.
Obama is a pragmatist at heart — he sees China not only as an opportunity but also as a challenge. The nomination of his national security team — with Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, retired Marine General James Jones as national security adviser and Robert Gates staying on as secretary of defense — signaled that his China policy would be pragmatic rather than idealistic.
All three of Obama’s picks indicate a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the areas of national security and foreign policy. They all know very well that China’s cooperation is very important to the US’ domestic and international interests.
If one focuses on Asia, China is definitely the most crucial player the US must deal with. The US has a good position in Asia, for example in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and on Myanmar’s human rights abuses. If Washington hopes to see results on these issues, it must work with China.
To bend China toward US interests, the US must, in Obama’s words, “pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy ... economy and the power of our moral example.”
In other words: “Strength and wisdom must go hand in hand.” Soft power and hard power must both be part of the strategy, although there should be more carrots than sticks.
But for its China policy to succeed, the US must take several factors into account.
First and foremost, the US must tend to its economic crisis and keep its economy competitive and vibrant.
As Obama said: “The national security challenges we face are just as grave and just as urgent as our economic crisis.”
The next US administration will need economic power to bolster the country’s military strength, diplomatic leverage and role as a global leader.
If the US wasn’t weighed down by an economic crisis as well as two wars, Washington would definitely hold more sway over Beijing on promoting a cooperative and constructive bilateral relationship.
In addition, Washington must remind Beijing that the US wants a cooperative relationship and is optimistic about a durable mutual relationship. But the dialogue on democracy, human rights, Tibet and military build up must be particularly careful.
For example, if Washington stays silent about Beijing’s recent pressure on French President Nicolas Sarkozy not to meet the Dalai Lama or on its recent execution of medical researcher Wo Weihan (伍維漢), it could send the signal that democratic values can be overshadowed by economic concerns and that Washington could eventually be turned against its own policies.
Moreover, Obama has said the US must strengthen its capacity to defeat enemies and support friends, and that Washington should renew old alliances and forge new, enduring partnerships.
The coming administration should therefore avoid giving China the impression that Washington is only interested in its relations with China — even at the expense of making other Asian allies irrelevant.
On the contrary, the new administration should indicate to its allies that they should expect more, not less, from US engagement with China.
The fact is that most of Asia consists of democracies such as Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Washington should indicate to China that reinforcing the multilateral relationships of its allies is not intended to contain China but to teach it the rules in Asia: freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.
China is welcome to join the democratic community, but it is not welcome to take charge of it.
- Yu Tsung-chi is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States.
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