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SHANGHAI — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week has embarked on her first overseas trip to Asia as America’s chief diplomat. While the leadership in all four capitals she visits are eager to gauge the pulse of the new U.S. government, Beijing is probably more anxious to figure out the Obama administration’s thinking on China and its vision of U.S.-China relations, a subject that was substantively absent from the runup to last year’s presidential election.

While it is still too early to enunciate the substance of Obama’s China policy, it might be useful to predict the future of Sino-American relations in the context of historical patterns. One theory generalizes that U.S. foreign policy is characterized by alternative periods of introversion and extroversion, with each lasting about a quarter century.

The last “offensive” episode began in the 1980s with the Reagan administration. It featured the “second cold war” and climaxed with the Soviet collapse. One can argue that after some 25 years of expansion, U.S. foreign policy may enter another period of strategic contraction under the Obama administration.

The early signs since Obama assumed office seem to point in that direction. Obama’s inaugural speech was in sharp contrast with the one delivered by George W. Bush in many important ways. Instead of calling for an ideological crusade for the spread of freedom and democracy to eliminate all tyrannies in the world, Obama posited that the United States was ready to be a friend to all nations and would extend a hand to those countries “on the wrong side of history.”

He pointed out that U.S. power did not entitle it to do whatever it pleased and emphasized the prudent use of force. Diplomacy rather than the discourse of “with us or against us” pre-emptive military action seems to represent Obama’s foreign policy. This was symbolically demonstrated by his visit to the State Department rather than the Pentagon on the second day of his presidency.

If it is plausible to assume that U.S. foreign policy under Obama in his first term may tend toward contraction rather than expansion, then what does this mean for U.S.-China relations? Recent history would suggest that a more moderate and defensive U.S. foreign policy is not bad news for China.

It was during the last period of U.S. strategic contraction — the Nixon administration — when Sino-American relations thawed, and a new era of strategic cooperation opened for about two decades. Washington needed Beijing’s help to get out of the Vietnam War and to deal with the perceived Soviet threat.

The period of strategic adjustment under Obama may mimic that era. But Obama’s policy configuration is likely to differ from that of the Nixon era. First of all, Beijing may see more continuity in America’s China policy than on other major foreign policy issues facing the Obama administration.

China policy was one of the few “bright spots” in George W. Bush’s administration. As China sees it, there is really no urgent need to modify it. Furthermore, with so much on Obama’s plate, China policy is unlikely to occupy a central place in the overall schema. Still, Clinton’s inclusion of Beijing on her first foreign trip indicates that the Obama team understands the strategic importance of China. So, rather less attention in the future could imply that U.S.-China relations are relatively stable.

Change and new initiatives are likely to be deferred because of more urgent domestic and foreign policy issues. Clinton’s speech at the Asia Society before her departure clearly indicated a conceptual departure from the Bush administration — a China on the rise is not by definition an adversary.

Separately, after coming to power, Obama informed Chinese President Hu Jintao that for both sides, no other bilateral relationship was more important than the U.S.-China relationship. The de-emphasis on strategic rivalry will make it less likely that Washington will consciously challenge the core national interests of China. On the most sensitive issues for Beijing, such as Taiwan, Beijing has reasons to expect the Obama administration to pursue restraint and constructive policies.

Despite this, U.S. strategic suspicion regarding China’s long-term intentions will not go away. Indeed when the U.S. feels vulnerable, both at home and abroad, it could be more sensitive and anxious about perceptions of Chinese military capabilities. Recent comments by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reflect such thinking.

Therefore, it is urgent that the two countries take the advantage of “a window of strategic opportunity” to build more robust, dynamic and transparent military relations, all of which were decidedly fragile and lukewarm during the Bush administration.

In this regard, a separate high-level military strategic dialogue might be required in addition to the political and economic strategic dialogues. China’s overture to resume military-to-military exchanges is a wise move. But Beijing also needs to make more careful and prudent calculations when developing its long-range power projection capabilities.

The appointment of special envoys to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan clearly show the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities. Washington would certainly appreciate it if Beijing did more to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On many other hot-button “third party” issues such as North Korea, Sudan, Iran and Myanmar, Obama could have even higher expectations of Beijing than the Bush administration, especially if the U.S. continues to be preoccupied with the Middle East/West Asia.

As for urgent issues such as climate change, energy and humanitarian assistance, the Obama administration will probably call on Beijing for more leadership and cooperation. The items on the agenda of Secretary Clinton’s East Asia trip inform such a policy orientation. Beijing needs to pay more attention to these nonconventional or “soft issues,” which are even more likely to set the course of U.S.-China relations.

The Obama administration’s concentration on domestic economic problems could also mean that “intermestic issues” such as trade, currency, market access and intellectual property could become more salient markers of the U.S.-China relationship.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s out-of-the-blue comments on currency manipulation caught the Chinese off guard. The sharp and sometimes emotional reactions to the incident from the Chinese side, including Premier Wen Jiabao’s, highlight Beijing’s frustration and fear that China might once again be made a scapegoat for America’s economic woes.

Many Chinese strongly believe that China is helping rather than hurting the U.S. economy by acting as “the bank of America.” As Wen bluntly put it, it is unfair to blame those who lend money to help those who overspend. If both governments take appropriate and sensitive approaches toward each other, U.S.-China relations could enter a period of “strategic opportunity,” where some short-term problems and long-term concerns are more rationally and effectively addressed.

China and the U.S. need genuine strategic dialogue and consultations across a broad spectrum of international and bilateral issues, regardless of whether they are held separately or jointly.

Thus Clinton’s remarks about a “comprehensive dialogue with China” make sense. Leaders of both countries risk compromising the fundamental interests of the two great nations as well as those of the world at large if they let this window of opportunity close.

Wang Jianwei is the Eugene Katz letters and science distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Currently he is a visiting scholar at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)

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