Obama and China

This is an interesting month for US-China relations. January 1st was the thirtieth anniversary of formal relations between the two nations, celebrated with a variety of activities and various optimistic projections. Yet in a few days, Barack Obama will become the President of the United States, and some speculate he may provide more of a challenge to the status quo than his predecessor vis-a-vis China relations.

Most Chinese people, it seems, don’t yet have strong feelings about Obama one way or the other; in large part, their eventual impression will depend on the way his administration deals with China. The Christian Science Monitor reports that they may, then, have reason to be a bit concerned.

China’s concerns stem from positions that Barack Obama took during the presidential campaign, as well as from comments by some of his top foreign-policy advisers. Mr. Obama was critical of China’s monetary policy and called on China to stop manipulating its currency, the yuan. Some economists see that manipulation as an effort to keep down the price of China’s exports and to maintain growth in a shrinking global economy.

At the same time, China has watched as Obama has named some outspoken human rights defenders to top diplomatic posts. Susan Rice, Obama’s top foreign-policy adviser during the campaign and a fervent advocate of pressing China on its human rights record and on its influence in Africa, is Obama’s choice as ambassador to the United Nations.

But Obama has also promised to redouble American diplomatic efforts and to favor engagement over confrontation with partners and adversaries alike.

At best, it’s currently unclear exactly what Obama’s positions are. In 2007, for example, he called for a ban on all toys from China, but this kind of unyielding stand seems unlikely now that he is actually President, especially given his aforementioned pledge to “favor engagement over confrontation.”

Obama’s own campaign site has this to say about his Asia foreign policy:

Obama and Biden will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea. They will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; work to build an infrastructure with countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity; and work to ensure that China plays by international rules.

The Obama-Biden campaign also released a more detailed paper called “Barack Obama’s Plan to Actively Engage China”. Two sections, in particular, might seem ominous to the Chinese government and its supporters:

End Chinese Support for Genocidal and Repressive Regimes: In Sudan, China is supporting one of the most reprehensible regimes in the world. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that we must use all available tools to demand that China use its influence to prevent Sudan and other regimes from acting contrary to international law and peace and security. China’s support for such regimes runs counter to the interests of the people of those countries, to the interests of the international community, and to China’s longer-term interest in being seen as a leader and responsible international actor. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will press China to end its support for regimes in Sudan, Burma, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Press China to Live Up to Human Rights Standards: From Tibet to cracking down on democracy and religious freedom activists, China has failed to live up to international standards of human rights. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe the United States has to be frank with the Chinese about such failings and will press them to respect human rights.

Of course, only time will tell what President Obama will do for US-China relations. In the meantime, though there are reasons to be nervous, Beijing’s official tone remains decidedly optimistic.

In the meantime, stay tuned for Obama’s inauguration speech, which is sure to be interesting (if not, perhaps, China-relevant). For those in China, the speech will occur at 12:30 A.M. Wednesday, January 21, 2009. CNN.com had a live stream of his election night speech online that worked in China, and will likely also broadcast Tuesday night’s speech online.

UPDATE: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has some ideas on how Obama and China can avoid mutual misunderstanding.

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