Sino-US relationship under Obama's governance

By Xiao He
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, November 15, 2009
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Obama is coming! Obama is paying an official visit to China in the first year of his term, an indication that the Sino-US relationship is undergoing a profound change. The Sino-US relationship has seen its fair share of ups and downs since 1979. After lots of trials at home and abroad, bilateral economic ties have strengthened and bilateral cooperation has broadened. With the deepening of interdependence between China and the United States, the status of the two countries tends to be more equal. However, all of these do not explain why Obama is visiting China in the first year of his term. Therefore, what is the reason for Obama's visit to China?

The reason is need. The US needs China and is seeking help from China. There is an old proverb in China that says, "One never goes to a Buddhist temple for nothing." As for the leader of the world's only superpower, Obama's agenda is based on his needs and interests. Obama was elected and inaugurated as President of the United States during a very tough time. The world is undergoing a severe financial crisis triggered by America's Wall Street; the US is suffering from an economic slowdown with a rising unemployment rate; the country is also trapped in the Iraq War and is having to deal with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, the soft power of the US has decreased, due to shaky foreign policy. Therefore, Obama, who pledged to turn things around, was elected to the White House. After taking office, he began his reforms both at home and abroad. However, without China’s cooperation and assistance, even the superpower cannot implement the reforms.

Firstly, the US needs money from China. China is the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves, with a total sum of $2.27 trillion. China is also the US's largest creditor nation, with a total U.S. debt of more than $800 billion. Obama's plans require huge financial assistance, including his $787 billion bailout plan, New Energy Plan and healthcare reform plan. It's estimated that the budget deficit of the US will be $1.4 trillion in 2009. The US needs China's financial assistance both for its economic stimulus plan and the development of a green economy. As the largest creditor nation of the US, each move China makes will influence the market's security. For instance, if China says it will sell US debt, the Dow Jones Index will decline; if China says it will buy US debt, the Dow Jones Index will soar. In consideration of money, the Obama administration hasn’t defined China as manipulating the RMB exchange rate.

Secondly, the US needs China's influence. The US has realized that a lot of global issues cannot be solved without China's participation, including the North Korean nuclear dispute, climate change, non-proliferation, epidemic diseases, issues with Afghanistan and so on. Therefore, Obama has said, "China is an essential player at the center of our agenda...none of [the above] can succeed without China's cooperation."

Thirdly, the US needs the status of China. China is the biggest developing country as well as the world's third-largest economy. China is a member of the BRIC, as well as initiator and member of SCO. Furthermore, China is a member of the ASEAN 10+3 Summit and East Asia Summit. As one of the members of APEC and a representative of the emerging markets, China is an important engine for the world economy. The US has realized the coming of the Pacific Age. Undoubtedly, the center of the world economy and the international stage is shifting from the Atlantic Ocean and the European Continent to the Pacific Ocean and the Asian Continent. The US is planning to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is trying to actively participate in the integration of East Asia.

Obama's visit to China is a result of his rational diplomacy since taking office. Obama has built a new image for the US within the first year of his term. Through his efforts, we think of America as a country that’s no longer ruled by neo-conservatism, neo-interventionism, Christian fundamentalism, or neo-isolationism. Under Obama's governance, the US is engaged in building a multi-partner and non-nuclear world. Under Obama’s governance, the US is modest and willing to listen, learn and respect other nations. Under his governance, the US is willing to negotiate, coordinate and cooperate with other nations equally. Under his governance, the US is willing to solve the conflicts through dialogue, negotiation and diplomacy. Under his governance, the US prefers multilateralism and liberalism. Under his governance, the US puts foreign affairs and development instead of national defense as its top priority. His reform in foreign affairs makes him admirable. That explains why he was awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. This prize is not only recognition for what he did in the past, but also for the expectation of what he can do in the future.

Due to the needs of US foreign initiatives, Obama pledged to promote the establishment of a positive, cooperative and comprehensive Sino-US relationship. The Sino-US relationship will shape the prosperity and security of the 21st century. Obama has continued the diplomacy with China set forward by the Bush administration, and the Sino-US relationship experienced a rare and smooth transition when the administration change took place. Obama has also improved relations with China on the basis of his predecessor's policies, such as integrating Bush's Sino-US "strategic dialogue" and "strategic economic dialogue" into the "strategic economic dialogue." This enabled the two countries to conduct more high-level interactions and constant hotline communication.

The Obama administration has created a few new concepts to redefine the Sino-US relationship. In July of this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that by confronting the world's complex challenges, the US is showing dedication to conduct more extensive cooperation, avoid overemphasizing the role of competition, and give way to a multi-partner world instead of the multi-polar world. In September at the New American Foundation, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said that strategic reassurance needs to be achieved between China and the US.

"Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China's 'arrival'... as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others," Steinberg said.

In November, Jeff Bader, the director of the US National Security Council of Asia-Pacific Affairs, noted, "we are competitors in some respect...but we must work to cooperate whenever possible," such as orderly and peacefully competing in terms of market and consumers.

From my point of view, no definition or concept can explain the realities of the Sino-US relationship. The imaginative and creative concepts put forward by Obama's office are worth pondering carefully. For instance, Hillary's "reduce competition and strengthen cooperation" should be regarded as strategic thinking that is guiding Sino-US relations, whereas Jim Steinberg's "strategy of reassurance" is a portrayal of the future of Sino-US relations. Just as he said, "Bolstering that bargain must be a priority in the US-China relationship. And strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic." While bargaining, may China also ask the US and the West to guarantee that they will not undermine China's security and interests? Let us put aside other affairs. Will Obama guarantee the following issues to Chinese government: the US will not sell arms to Taiwan and will not support Tibetan separatist forces? Bader's argument is essentially a description of the status quo. That is, the current Sino-US relationship is both cooperative and competitive, with the cooperation based on common interests and the competition on different interests. For example, the Obama administration has recently wielded the trade protection stick against China, such as the safeguarding case of tires from China and the anti-dumping case of Chinese steel. Trade friction between any two trading partners is normal, but it is necessary to prevent the politicization of trade affairs and to keep trade friction from spilling over into other areas where Sino-US relations are concerned.

The Sino-US relationship relies not only on Obama's wish and the creative concepts in his administration, but also on domestic politics in the US. The US policy toward China has been deeply influenced by factors such as domestic elections, party politics, interest groups and ideologies. China is important for the Sino-US relationship. Due to the significance of the Sino-US relationship, leaders from both nations need to handle the bilateral relationship with extraordinary wisdom and unusual courage, in order to achieve a win-win situation for both countries.

(This article was translated by Gong Jie of

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