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Obama is right to be hard-nosed on China

September 1, 2010

By Minxin Pei
Financial Times (UK)
August 31, 2010

When Barack Obama was elected president, Beijing
thought that he would be tough on human rights
and trade, but not on national security. A year
and a half later, Mr Obama’s policy could hardly be more different.

Instead of pressing China hard on its poor rights
record, Mr Obama has put the issue to the back
burner. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
confirmed as much on the eve of her visit to
China in February 2009. To avoid antagonising
Chinese leaders before his own visit to Beijing
in November last year, Mr Obama even postponed a
private meeting with the Dalai Lama. On the
whole, his administration has done precious little on the issue.

The story on trade is much the same. Despite
mounting congressional pressure on China’s de
facto dollar-peg, Mr Obama has refused to label
China a “currency manipulator.” Indeed, except
for imposing a few modest anti-dumping penalties,
his trade policy is indistinguishable from that of President George W. Bush.

However, on national security, the Obama
administration has shown a surprisingly hard
edge, particularly in the past few months.
Against Beijing’s protestations, Washington
dispatched a large naval force to conduct joint
military exercises with the South Korean navy in
the Sea of Japan, as deterrence against
Pyongyang. To counter China’s growing influence
in Southeast Asia, the US has also resumed its
aid to the Indonesian military, and recently sent
a carrier battle group in an unprecedented joint naval exercise with Vietnam.

Washington also announced a controversial plan to
sell civilian nuclear technology to Hanoi. In its
recent annual report on the strength of the
Chinese military, the Pentagon levelled harsh
criticisms at China’s military modernisation
programme and its impact on Asia’s balance of power.

Perhaps the biggest bombshell was dropped by Mrs
Clinton in Hanoi in July. Speaking to the Asean
regional forum, she all but declared that the US
would not allow China to coerce its smaller
neighbours. For the first time, Washington
designated the South China Sea as an area where
it had a national interest in “freedom of
navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime
commons and respect for international law”. This
might look neutral, but Beijing (which recently
signalled that it regards the South China Sea as
among its “core interests”) must have felt stunned and stung.

Why has Mr Obama’s China policy taken such a
turn? Beijing’s own missteps share part of the
blame. Chinese leaders rebuffed early efforts to
woo Beijing into a closer relationship. Mr
Obama’s China visit last November was viewed as a
debacle because Beijing limited his access to the
Chinese public. China’s over-the-top reaction to
America’s long-scheduled arms sales to Taiwan,
and Mr Obama’s (belated) meeting with the Dalai
Lama earlier this year, did not help. China also
obstructed US attempts to impose sanctions on
Iran and condemn North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship.

More important, Mr Obama has reverted to
long-standing American principles in dealing with
a rising great power. For while the US can
confidently manage China’s mounting economic
prowess, and count on economic progress to
liberalise the Chinese political system, the
world’s sole superpower can ill-afford to allow
its new rival to become Asia’s hegemon.

In many ways, Mr Obama’s evolving China policy is
more grounded in reality. By abandoning the
touchy-feely rhetoric of “strategic partnership”,
Washington’s balanced but hard-nosed new China
strategy more accurately reflects the complex
dynamics of economic co-operation and
geopolitical competition that underlie its ties
with Beijing. It is also a policy that should
reassure China’s nervous neighbours that America
is committed to maintaining Asia’s strategic balance.

In the years ahead, as Washington pursues this
policy further, we should expect more frequent
eruptions over security issues, even as the two
countries keep close economic ties. In its
essence, Mr Obama’s revamped China strategy is a
continuation of Mr. Bush’s “strategic hedging” –
a strategy certain to endure as long as China
remains a one-party state, and continues a
realpolitik foreign policy that challenges the America-led liberal world order.

The writer is a professor at Claremont McKenna
College and an adjunct senior associate at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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