President Obama’s China Policy

Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States will certainly lead to a change in in the style a of American foreign policy: The U.S. will become more multilateral, less unilateral; more diplomatic, less preemptive. And a new president also means a fresh start with the rest of the world.

But the realities of global politics may mean there will be less change in its substance. Obama still has two wars to deal with, potential crises with Iran and North Korea, a much deteriorated relationship with Russia, a still fragile peace process in the Middle East, and, of course, the global financial crisis, climate change and sustainability.

Then there is China. There are a myriad of potential flash points: the three Ts among them, Taiwan, Tibet and trade. On the campaign trail, Obama often sounded protectionist, but that rhetoric will probably be left there once he is in the White House, especially given the global economic slowdown. Now more than ever, the U.S. needs a politically stable China that has a growing economy. That is what the Bush administration sought; and Obama is likely to want exactly the same.

China, too, needs a strong U.S. economy and a strong U.S. even if there may be a long-term shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates going on deep below the surface of day-to-day international relations. China may also may harbor hopes of a softer line on Taiwan, if not Tibet from Obama. It will like an America that speaks more softly, which America’s 44th president will certainly do. But a big stick still comes with the job.

A couple of Obama quotes that encapsulate that. First from the AFL-CIO Democratic primary forum in August 2007:

China is a competitor, but they don’t have an enemy, as long as we understand that they are going to be negotiating aggressively for their advantage, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re looking after American workers. That means enforcing our trade agreements; it means that if they’re manipulating their currency, that we take them to the mat on the that issue; it means that we are also not running up deficits and asking China to bail us out.

Second from the 2007 Des Moines Register Democratic debate last December.

We have to be tougher negotiators with China. They are not enemies, but they are competitors of ours. Right now the United States is still the dominant superpower in the world. But the next president can’t be thinking about today; he or she also has to be thinking about 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now.

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