U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, asked about his foreign policy priorities when named Person of the Year by Time magazine, listed nuclear proliferation, climate change and global poverty as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the trans-Atlantic alliance, Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and then, almost as an afterthought, “managing our relationship with China and the entire Pacific Rim.”
In a way, this is good since it reflects the relatively calm state of that relationship, with no crisis that needs immediate presidential attention.
But the next president must recognize that China is not just a relationship to be managed. It is perhaps the key relationship that the United States must sustain if Obama is to achieve success in virtually all his other foreign policy priority areas.
In the 21st century, there is no relationship more important to the U.S. This does not mean that Washington can give up its network of alliances in Europe and in Asia. Those alliances are important. But Washington must give greater recognition of China’s role in the coming decades.
It also does not mean that the U.S. should no longer stand up for democracy and human rights. In fact, the inauguration of Obama and the shutting down of the Guantanamo detention center should help restore Washington’s moral stature and put it in a stronger position to support human rights around the world since it should no longer be accused of hypocrisy.
An Obama administration will certainly understand that the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is a complex web of relationships, and the overall relationship cannot be held hostage to any one strand of it, no matter how important.
This is because, in the 21st century, cooperation between Washington and Beijing in vital, not just for those two countries but for the rest of the world as well. Nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, for example, cannot be tackled without Chinese cooperation while, with such cooperation, there is real hope of progress.
China is already cooperating on the North Korean nuclear issue and, to some extent, on the Iranian issue as well.
On climate change — something to which the Obama administration is determined to give priority, reversing eight years of inactivity — Washington badly needs the cooperation of Beijing, since China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
China will not be blackmailed into cooperation. It can, however, be persuaded if the U.S. were to take the lead and unconditionally announce its own plans to reduce emissions. Hopefully, this is what Obama and his advisers are planning to do.
With the U.S. facing an economic crisis of historic proportions, there is likely to be pressure from Congress, from unions and from sections of the media to shift the blame for its economic woes from internal American factors to China, the personification of globalization.
It may be difficult for Obama to resist such pressures since he had accused China during the presidential campaign of manipulating its currency. Obama pledged that, “as president, I will use all the diplomatic avenues available to seek a change in China’s currency practices.”
That is easier said than done. For one thing, American accusations that China does not play by the rules of the marketplace will be difficult to sustain since Washington in effect has partly nationalized whole industries through multibillion-dollar bailouts. It no longer has the moral authority to tell China that it should let the market determine such things as the value of its currency.
The Bush administration, while pursuing a China policy that was generally positive, also did things that irked Beijing. For example, it refused to give face to President Hu Jintao by calling his visit to Washington in 2006 a “state visit,” and it refused to use the term “strategic dialogue” for senior-level talks between the two countries, saying that term was reserved for allies like Japan.
The incoming Obama administration should demonstrate that it is willing to treat China with greater dignity. One demonstration of this new attitude would be an early visit to Beijing by Obama.
Another dramatic move would be to offer to cooperate with China in a space mission. At a time when a Chinese astronaut has staged the country’s first space walk and when interest in space is re-emerging in the U.S., a joint space venture not only would demonstrate American respect for Chinese technology but also could capture the imagination of the world as to just what is possible if these two countries work together.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.