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China’s take on Obama and Obama’s take on China

By Dominic Meagher - posted Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The US-China relationship is among the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Yet during the American Presidential election, China appeared something of a no-go zone.

In the US there are broadly two camps on China: those who would seek to contain, and those who seek to engage.

President-elect Obama is lauded for his instincts towards international engagement, co-operation, listening respectfully to others, and pragmatism. These are instincts that will serve him well dealing with China. But his comments on trade during his campaign for the Presidency, his penchant for blaming US manufacturing job losses on China and his promise to establish an “enforcement office” at USTR (Office of the United States Trade Representative) to pressure China to revalue the RMB, point in a different direction and herald a trickier time for Sino-American relations.


Real Clear Politics has described considerable concern in Asia that the protectionist side of Obama will dominate his dealings with Asia, and notably China. Is the concern in Asia justified?

Perhaps not when you compare Obama with President Bush, when newly elected.

Current Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, claims that President Bush chose the path of engagement. This is far from true. It is true that US engagement with China, economically and strategically, has grown enormously under the Bush Administration. But a review of media reports from 2000-2001 show that, in fact, at the outset Bush rather chose to antagonise, not to engage, China.

Here’s a reminder of how the US-China relationship looked at the time:

As a candidate, Bush was criticised for being “stuck in a cold war time warp” and relying on “isolationist, right-wing advisers for guidance” (30/4/2000). He talked strongly of defending Taiwan militarily, and selling arms to Taiwan (a long term policy, but not one traditionally trumpeted loudly). His enthusiasm for the misguided Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) plan was perceived in Beijing as a policy of containment. Bush abandoned the Clinton era rhetoric describing China as a “strategic partner”, in favour of the more antagonising “strategic competitor”.

Three weeks before Bush took office, he was described as “on a collision course with China” (04/1/2001), Yan Xuetong, at that time executive director of the Institute of International Studies at CASS (China’s premier government think tank) said, “in the next four years, I would not rule out a possible military confrontation” (04/1/2001). The whole of the Asia Pacific was frightened about a nuclear arms race between the US and China (25/1/2001).


Bush escalated the issue of arms to Taiwan by hinting that Taiwan would be included in the anti-missile defence umbrella (06/3/2001).

Then, on April 1, 2001 was the “spy plane incident”*. The Chinese detained the US crew on Hainan Island for 12 days. As soon as the US personnel were back in Hawaii, Bush began blaming the crisis entirely on China, dropping the diplomatic rhetoric he grudgingly adopted under duress during the stand-off (13/4/2001).

Following the spy plane incident, Bush stepped up encirclement rhetoric. On April 25 Bush said “he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to defend Taiwan from any China attacks” (26/4/2001). Shortly after, he ratcheted up the rhetoric, engaging Russia on TMD plans (01/5/2001). China promptly responded that such actions “could lead to a possible arms race” (02/5/2001). To celebrate the Bush administration’s first 100 days, the People’s Daily described Bush as “arrogant”, “emotional”, “egotistic” and “capricious” and recommended Bush “learn from his predecessor, Bill Clinton” (03/5/2001).

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First published in East Asia Forum on October 27, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Dominic Meagher is a PhD candidate in Economics at the Australian National University and is Project Manager of the China Economy and Business Program of the Crawford School of Economics and Government. Research areas are the Chinese economy, East Asian energy and environment.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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