The Obama Administration and China: Positive but Fragile Equilibrium

By Sutter, Robert | Asian Perspective, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Obama Administration and China: Positive but Fragile Equilibrium


Sutter, Robert, Asian Perspective


The Obama administration's initially positive and constructive engagement with China comes amid continuing differences and mutual suspicions. The priorities and pragmatism of U.S. and Chinese leaders and enduring U.S. leadership in Asia demonstrate that the positive equilibrium in relations between the two administrations is likely to continue, though it will remain fragile because of different interests and suspicions.

Key words: U.S.-China relations, U.S. policy in Asia, Obama administration, engagement, mutual suspicions

Initial Encounters: Signs of Convergence and Divergence

The course of Sino-American relations one year after the nomination of Senator Barack Obama to be the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States has been smooth. There has been a notable absence of substantial debate in the United States over China policy both during the U.S. presidential election campaign and the initial months of the Obama presidency. This stands in contrast to the last three transfers of U.S. presidential power from one party to the other: from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, and from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. Those major turning points in American politics saw issues in U.S. China policy figure prominently in the election campaigns and in the early years of each incoming U.S. government. The changes in presidential power were accompanied by contentious U.S. debates and U.S. government positions strongly at odds with those of China over U.S. relations with Taiwan (especially from Carter to Reagan), human rights, trade practices, Taiwan policy (Bush to Clinton), and the security threat posed to the United States, Taiwan, and U.S. allies in Asia by rising Chinese economic, political, and especially military power (Clinton to Bush).1

Some Chinese and U.S. advocates of close U.S. engagement with China were initially wary of the incoming Democratic president. 2 During the campaign, Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton, his main opponent in the Democratic Party presidential primaries and his choice as Secretary of State, had at times voiced strong views on protecting American jobs from unfair Chinese and other international competition. They also were close to Democratic Party leaders in the Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had long records strongly opposing Chinese policies and practices over human rights, trade, Tibet, and support for so-called rogue regimes such as Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and North Korea.3

After coming to power, the Obama government took steps to reassure Chinese leaders, notably during Secretary of State Clinton's initial visit to China in February 2009 and during President Obama's initial meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the sidelines of the G-20 summit on the international economic crisis in London in April. Over the course of a few months, U.S. and Chinese leaders reached agreement on positive terms such as "constructive" and "cooperative" that they then used consistently to characterize their relationship. They began top-level exchanges between U.S. and Chinese leaders at international meetings and planned Sino-U.S. summits in China and the United States. A more comprehensive dialogue between top economic and international affairs leaders of both countries was established. Military exchanges, suspended by China on account of a U.S. announcement of a large sale of arms to Taiwan in 2008, were resumed. The two governments were in agreement on the need to address salient issues such as the global economic crisis, climate change, and energy, and a variety of regional hotspots in Asia ranging from North Korea to Southwest Asia and the Middle East.4

The prevailing positive interaction between U.S. and Chinese leaders in these months failed to hide assessments among many U.S. and Chinese officials, specialists, and other observers about important differences and concerns that continued to hamper improvement in U. …

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