Obama faces Beijing test

Updated: 2012-11-22 08:07

By Martin Sieff (China Daily)

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Obama faces Beijing test

Speaking in Washington on Nov 15, US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon laid out a policy of "balancing cooperation and competition" with China through US President Barack Obama's second term in office. Donilon said the US president was determined to strengthen trade ties and cooperation with China. He even explicitly said in answer to a question that the US government did not believe a significant conflict with China was inevitable or desirable, because China was a rising power and the US a status quo one.

The question of course remains whether Donilon was being too optimistic, because he did not address in his presentation the question of what tough, if any, choices Washington may have to make to achieve these ends.

In his remarks at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Donilon acknowledged that Obama's tour of Southeast Asia - Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia - this week was a deliberate sign that Asia now ranked far above the Middle East in strategic significance for the US. There are already a number of signs that the second Obama administration may be easier for China to deal with than the first.

That Xi Jinping was chosen as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China at the 18th Party Congress is also a positive sign for Sino-US relations. Xi's visit to the US in February was a great success with policymakers and the American public alike. And he is widely respected and trusted as a leader who wants to expand peaceful economic cooperation between the two Pacific giants.

Besides, Obama will be under far less domestic pressure to be publicly "tough on China" than was almost universally expected only six months ago. US unemployment rates are finally starting to fall and the most robust growth is coming in the old industrial states, generated in significant part by growing demand from China. The US now sells $1.5 billion worth of auto parts a year to China and that figure is expected to grow rapidly.

China gives and will give priority to maintaining stable Sino-US ties. Speaking in Washington last week, Donilon left no doubt that the Obama administration recognized that good relations with China were essential to the US as well.

However, maintaining good ties with China, will require some hard choices that US policymakers, whether Republican or Democrat, have so far refused to make. China sees the US as strongly supporting Japan, the Philippines, and also Vietnam, in its territorial disputes with them.

Many across Asia believe it is the US' strategic "legacy" that created the island disputes between China and its neighbors. Tokyo has angered Beijing by "purchasing" the Diaoyu Islands with what Beijing perceives as Washington's support.

This raises fears that the friction between China and Japan or the Philippines, both of which are US allies, could spiral out of control. The US has emphasized that it doesn't take sides in any of the South China Sea disputes, but it continues to hold military exercises with Japan as well as the Philippines.

It remains to be seen whether the next US secretary of state will continue this vague and paradoxical stance that he/she inherits from Hillary Clinton. But there is a serious price to be paid for it. If the US continues to stick to this stance, it will certainly deepen China's strategic mistrust of the US.

Donilon and Obama both have left no doubt that they want to strike a balance between their strategy of maintaining the US' leading role in the Asia-Pacific region and sustaining stable ties with China. But they have not offered any concrete initiative on how they plan to do so. Instead, they have continued complacently with their old, familiar policies.

There are many other imponderables that US policymakers do not seem to have addressed. The US continues to be deeply involved in the Middle East. It remains strongly committed to Israel and faces growing, potentially serious hostility from two long-time American allies in the region, Turkey and Egypt. The stability and continued pro-American orientation of the Iraqi government are both in serious doubt after US troops finally pull out from that country. Any threat to the stability of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, too, will be of grave concern to Washington.

All of this means that the much-heralded Obama-Clinton "pivot to Asia" strategy could be reversed or stopped in its tracks by any number of serious crises in the Middle East. And the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict seems to verify this.

US leaders from the president downward are sincere in their desire to build better and lasting ties with China. Yet for many Chinese, the US' return to Asia strategy is targeted at China. The conception gap between decision-makers in both countries remains very wide. That is why the most hopeful of the second Obama administration's initiatives toward China is the strengthening and expanding of dialogue.

However, even here there are problems. Donilon said Washington still wants to focus on collective security and multilateral negotiations. But one of the most essential diplomatic principles in history is that lasting understanding and cooperation only come through direct, focused bilateral talks. Clinton's successor as secretary of state will have to learn and apply that crucial lesson.

The US and China both need a strong, frank bilateral relationship whose primacy is clearly recognized by both partners. If that does not come first, the US' "contain and engage" policy confirmed by Donilon last week will rapidly deteriorate into a "contain" rather than an "engage" policy.

Ironically, the sluggish US economic recovery, and its continued involuntary engagement in the endless problems of Iraq and Afghanistan may help, rather than hinder, Sino-US relations. They may make US policymakers more disposed toward compromise with China's leaders and listen more closely to what they have to say.

The author is chief global analyst of The Globalist, a political columnist for the Baltimore Post-Examiner and former chief foreign correspondent for The Washington Times.

(China Daily 11/22/2012 page9)