MONTEREY, California - As Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, they will most
likely be making history by electing the first African-American to the US
presidency. A Barack Obama administration already generates hopes and
expectations that the much-tattered United States image as a unilateralist
superpower could finally find its redemption.
This year's presidential campaigns have focused a great deal on domestic issues
such as the economy, jobs, taxation and health care reforms. One of the
anticipated campaign issues - the Iraq War - quickly receded as a defining
issue both because the military "surge" seems to have worked in stabilizing the
situation on the ground and because the unexpected financial crisis in
recent months overshadowed debate on foreign policy.
Somewhat surprisingly, China and Sino-US relations have not featured
prominently in the campaign. Both Democratic Senator Barack Obama and
Republican Senator John McCain recognize the importance of maintaining a stable
relationship between the US and China, even though they also seek to address
specific issues critical to American, such as trade, climate change and China's
obligation as a responsible rising power.
Obama, for instance, has indicated that if elected his administration would use
diplomacy to influence Chinese policies and behavior on currency practices,
trade balances and climate change. McCain has emphasized China's responsibility
in dealing with such regimes as Sudan and Myanmar.
Does campaign rhetoric matter as far as Sino-US relations are concerned? The
seven administrations since president Richard Nixon seem to suggest that it
does not, or if so, only a little. Ronald Reagan resorted to strong pro-Taiwan
rhetoric during the campaigns, but he soon found himself modifying his
positions, driven by the need to enlist Chinese cooperation in stemming Soviet
Bill Clinton accused the first Bush administration of kowtowing to "butchers
from Baghdad to Beijing" and sought to link trade with human-rights issues in
China. But he also had to modify his policy and in his second term developed
and promoted a US-China strategic partnership.
The fact that China has not become a debating point in this year's presidential
campaign is an indicator of the maturity of bilateral relations developed
during the eight years of the Bush administration. Indeed, candidate Bush
called China a strategic competitor and sought to strengthen ties with its
Asian allies to counter the rise of China. Bush, only months in office,
announced a major arms sales package to Taiwan and vowed to defend the island
"whatever it takes".
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and Washington's efforts
in seeking major power cooperation in its "war on terror" have provided the
opportunities and framework to improve Sino-US relations. Beijing and
Washington have since developed, and continue to maintain, close cooperation on
issues ranging from combating terrorism to North Korea's nuclear weapons
program. In addition, the two countries have also sought to manage disputes
that once irritated bilateral relations, with various degrees of success. There
are regular bilateral security, arms control and defense consultations,
enabling the two sides to discuss their differences through dialogue.
Either an Obama or a McCain administration will likely follow Bush's China
policy in maintaining what has been characterized as the "cooperative,
constructive, and candid" relationship between the world's reigning superpower
and its rising star. However, the new administration faces both challenges and
opportunities in responding to China's continued rise as a political, military
and economic power on the global stage.
A McCain administration is likely to be more attentive to China's continuing
rise as a major power that could be seen as a potential challenger to US
interests. In that regard, McCain will follow the Bush administration strategy
of strengthening ties with Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra and New Delhi as a hedge
against China. An Obama administration, on the other hand, will focus more on
the economic challenges posed by China, especially where Washington considers
Beijing as playing an unfair game and not bound by internationally recognized
and accepted rules.
While Obama may have expressed such views largely out of the necessity for
getting more votes as well as appeasing his base, tension in bilateral
relations in the coming months cannot be ruled out, This will not be because a
president Obama intends to pick a fight with China, but due to pressure from a
Democrat-controlled Congress in which trade and human-rights advocates could
demand that the new administration stand up against what they see as Chinese
malpractices. The likely scenario is that an Obama administration would seek to
keep intact and continue to develop US-China relations in strategic terms while
addressing congressional concerns with some tactical moves.
Tuesday's elections will be marked as transformational in American politics.
Its impact on Sino-US relations, however, will be less dramatic. In the longer
term, for either Obama or McCain the China question will loom larger in the
US's grand strategy. Indeed, despite the significant progress and the maturity
of the relationship today, fundamental differences remain between China and the
US over military alliances, the role of nuclear deterrence, missile defense and
the use of force, not to mention resolution of the Taiwan issue.
Both China and the US continue to view each other's objectives and policies
with caution, even suspicion, and neither has let down its guard against future
contingencies. Indeed, as a rapidly rising power and the reigning superpower,
the two countries face important structural and perceptual challenges that will
have far reaching impacts on regional peace and security, and on the stability
of the post-Cold War international system in the coming decades.
Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program
at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies and an associate
professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of