US-China re­la­tions in post-Obama era

She is rel­a­tively known and pre­dictable, and he is less known and less pre­dictable. But what will a Pres­i­dent Hil­lary Clin­ton or a Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump mean to US-China re­la­tions? Ex­perts in the field weigh in with their views, re­ports in Wash­ing­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

n a Satur­day morn­ing in late Oc­to­ber, Wash­ing­ton-based Chi­nese jour­nal­ist Luo Shi was kayak­ing on the Po­tomac River near the Chain Bridge when one of his friends in China sent him a mes­sage on the pop­u­lar so­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form WeChat: Which US pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump or Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, is bet­ter for China?

The jour­nal­ist, who prefers to be iden­ti­fied as Luo Shi, said he spent some 20 min­utes go­ing back and forth with his friend, a busi­ness­man, on the topic while float­ing on the river.

“My friend was wor­ried if the al­ready tense China-US re­la­tions will get worse un­der ei­ther Clin­ton or Trump since there have been so many con­flict­ing news re­ports in the Chi­nese news me­dia and so­cial me­dia,” Luo said.

A Pew Cen­ter sur­vey re­leased on Oct 5 shows that more Chi­nese saw Clin­ton fa­vor­ably (37 per­cent) than Trump (22 per­cent). And 35 per­cent of the Chi­nese saw Clin­ton un­fa­vor­ably while 40 per­cent had an un­fa­vor­able view of Trump.

That was a huge dif­fer­ence com­pared with a poll in May by the Chi­nese lan­guage Phoenix TV web­site. It showed that of 24,449 peo­ple sur­veyed, 61.5 per­cent sup­ported Trump while only 7.8 per­cent fa­vored Clin­ton. Polls by some other Chi­nese news me­dia out­lets at the time also re­vealed a high fa­vor­a­bil­ity rat­ing for Trump.

Cheng Li, di­rec­tor of the John L. Thorn­ton China Cen­ter at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, de­scribed those polls in China as not sci­en­tif­i­cally based. “My view and my ob­ser­va­tion is that China is di­vided very much like us,” said Li, a US cit­i­zen.

In­ter­est in the US elec­tion among the Chi­nese has been high. Luo showed last week­end that his WeChat Mo­ments where his friends, mostly well-ed­u­cated young peo­ple, tweeted ar­ti­cles and pho­tos about Clin­ton’s re­newed email probe, Trump’s im­age in a Hal­loween pa­rade and an ar­ti­cle by Robert Kennedy’s speech­writer Adam Walin­sky, ar­gu­ing why he, a life­long Demo­crat, will vote for Trump. All the ar­ti­cles were in Chi­nese or were trans­lated into Chi­nese.

Hawk­ish Clin­ton

Chi­nese are fa­mil­iar with the Clin­tons, ever since first lady Hil­lary at­tended the United Na­tions Fourth Con­fer­ence on Women in Bei­jing in 1995, and Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton paid a nine-day state visit to China in 1998 dur­ing the Mon­ica Lewin­sky scan­dal. Their daugh­ter Chelsea, also on the trip, was 18 at the time.

Many Chi­nese have had good feel­ings about both Clin­tons, but some took a dif­fer­ent view of Hil­lary after she be­came sec­re­tary of state in 2009. They partly blamed her for the grow­ing ten­sion be­tween China and its neigh­bors and be­tween China and the US over the US re­bal­ance to Asia strat­egy, of which she was an ar­chi­tect and strong sup­porter.

Many re­mem­ber her re­marks in Hanoi in June 2010 when she talked about US na­tional in­ter­ests in the South China Sea is­sue and tried to rally coun­tries in the re­gion against China. On her trip to Africa, she also de­scribed the Chi­nese ac­tiv­i­ties there as neo-colo­nial­ism.

Like some Amer­i­cans, many Chi­nese also re­gard Hil­lary as hawk­ish. She not only sup­ported the in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003, but was be­hind the regime change in Libya in 2011 by what China and Rus­sia be­lieve abus­ing a UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion on a no-fly zone. China, along with Rus­sia, ab­stained in that vote but have since learned the hard les­son.

Libya has since turned into chaos and be­come a haven for ISIS. Many for­eign pol­icy ex­perts ar­gue that re­mov­ing Muam­mar Gaddafi, who had given up nu­clear weapons, makes it hard for the US to per­suade North Korea to aban­don its nu­clear am­bi­tion.

Dou­glas Paal, vice-pres­i­dent for stud­ies at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace and di­rec­tor of its Asia pro­gram, said that Clin­ton has shown hawk­ish in­stincts on Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. He de­scribed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s in­stinct as “more of a dovish” de­spite his es­ca­la­tion of drone strikes and back­track­ing on troop with­drawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That said, Hil­lary is not the kind of hawk peo­ple should fear that leads to war. When she dealt with China as sec­re­tary of state, she was pretty clear-eyed, clear-headed. She tried to be very con­struc­tive with China,” said Paal, a Repub­li­can who served in the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Ron­ald Rea­gan and Pres­i­dent Bush Sr and Jr.

But he de­scribed Clin­ton’s speech in Hanoi in 2010 as “poorly ad­vised,” say­ing she could have taken a stand that was more mod­er­ate.

Li of Brook­ings cam­paigned for Clin­ton in her failed 2008 pres­i­den­tial race. He said that Chi­nese who have re­garded Clin­ton as some­one who has wanted to con­tain China have misun­der­stood her. He cited Clin­ton’s crit­i­cal role in en­sur­ing a US pavil­ion in the Shang­hai Expo 2010 and in help­ing launch the 100,000 Strong Ini­tia­tive to send US stu­dents to China. “That is not some­thing some­one who wanted to con­tain China would do,” Li said.

The Clin­ton pres­i­den­tial cam­paign has a team that is knowl­edge­able about China. Peo­ple like for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Tom Donilon and for­mer Deputy Sec­re­tary of State James Stein­berg, a China hand, are among her ad­vi­sors.

Li be­lieves there will be a con­tin­u­a­tion of Obama’s China pol­icy if Clin­ton is elected on Nov 8, cit­ing the more than 90 di­a­logue mech­a­nisms be­tween the two gov­ern­ments. But he also be­lieves Clin­ton will be tougher on trade, hu­man rights and se­cu­rity is­sues than Obama has been.

The most sig­nif­i­cant of the 90-plus mech­a­nisms in­clude the an­nual Strate­gic and Eco­nomic Di­a­logue (S&ED), to which Clin­ton headed the US del­e­ga­tion while sec­re­tary of state, as well as the Joint Com­mis­sion on Com­merce and Trade (JCCT), which will meet in Wash­ing­ton late this month.

“Hil­lary knows more about China than Obama. At the same time, she will stress more about the US lead­er­ship role,” Li said, adding that Obama is more aware of the chang­ing world and that a unipo­lar world has come to an end.

Most Chi­nese didn’t know much Trump be­fore he started his 2016 cam­paign, ex­cept in his role in the TV series The Ap­pren­tice and his wealth. But books about Trump are now widely avail­able in Chi­nese book­stores.

Trump has blasted China re­peat­edly at ral­lies and in de­bates, ac­cus­ing China of cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion and tak­ing away Amer­i­can jobs and threat­en­ing to slap a 45 per­cent tar­iff on Chi­nese im­ports, some­thing he has not men­tioned lately.

Un­like Clin­ton, Trump’s for­eign pol­icy team is still lit­tle known. But he has ex­pressed his will­ing­ness to meet North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, his hope to mend ties with Rus­sia and get along with ev­ery­body. His tone of be­ing less of an in­ter­ven­tion­ist is ap­peal­ing to many Chi­nese who have long dis­liked ex­ces­sive US in­ter­ven­tion­ism.

Ted Car­pen­ter, a se­nior fel­low of de­fense and for­eign pol­icy at the Cato In­sti­tute, pre­dicted that China-US re­la­tions are likely to be more dif­fi­cult un­der a Trump or Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion than they have been un­der Obama.

He also cited the ex­am­ples of Trump’s com­plaints of China-US trade re­la­tions, his re­cep­tiv­ity to US al­lies in East Asia ac­quir­ing nu­clear weapons, and Clin­ton’s speech in Hanoi in 2010. “So both in­di­vid­u­als would take hard lines to­ward China, al­though in some­what dif­fer­ent ways,” said Car­pen­ter, who said he would vote for nei­ther can­di­date.

Obama’s pol­icy

Zhiqun Zhu, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Buck­nell Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia, agreed that Clin­ton’s China pol­icy is likely to be a con­tin­u­a­tion of Obama’s pol­icy.

“Pres­i­dent Trump’s China pol­icy is un­clear, partly be­cause he does not have much ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with China and partly be­cause he does not have an im­pres­sive or vo­cal China team now,” said Zhu, who would not say for whom he will vote.

He be­lieves Clin­ton fully un­der­stands the depth and ex­tent of US-China re­la­tions, and he said that she is un­likely to dis­rupt the vi­tal re­la­tion­ship.

While ex­press­ing his con­cern over Trump’s tough talk on China trade, Zhu noted that “Pres­i­dent Trump is a smart busi­ness­man and is likely to main­tain this strong re­la­tion­ship for eco­nomic pur­poses’’

“I do not ex­pect ma­jor ups and downs in the re­la­tion­ship in the post-Obama era,” he said. “No Amer­i­can or Chi­nese leader will in­ten­tion­ally jeop­ar­dize this re­la­tion­ship.”

China-US re­la­tions have be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­de­pen­dent. China is the largest trade part­ner for the US, with bi­lat­eral trade in goods and ser­vices ex­ceed­ing $600 bil­lion in 2015. China has be­come one of the fastest grow­ing ex­port mar­kets for the US. While al­most all ma­jor US com­pa­nies have a pres­ence in China, Chi­nese for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment has made for­ays into the US in the past few years.

There are more than 300,000 Chi­nese stu­dents cur­rently en­rolled in US uni­ver­si­ties and colleges. The num­ber of Chi­nese tourists to the US, now at about 2 mil­lion a year, is likely to hit 5 mil­lion by 2025, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by Gold­man Sachs.

China’s fast grow­ing mid­dle class and an econ­omy that will de­pend more on do­mes­tic con­sump­tion is cov­eted by multi­na­tion­als de­spite griev­ances by some about cer­tain Chi­nese do­mes­tic poli­cies and prac­tices.

On global and re­gional is­sues, the world’s two largest economies are in­creas­ingly col­lab­o­rat­ing on is­sues such as the nu­clear is­sue in Iran and North Korea, counter-ter­ror­ism, and cli­mate change.

Paal of CEIP be­lieves it’s imag­i­na­tive for some Chi­nese to think that a Pres­i­dent Trump will lead to bet­ter re­la­tions with China. He de­scribed Trump as “a mess in­tel­lec­tu­ally and bureaucratically” and said the smart peo­ple who could work for Trump have all de­nounced him.

Paal ac­knowl­edged that Trump’s run­ning­mate Mike Pence is a ra­tio­nal per­son.

He dis­agreed that there might be more ten­sion in US-China re­la­tions un­der a Pres­i­dent Clin­ton due to what he said will be the main prob­lems fac­ing the new US pres­i­dent — the Mid­dle East, Europe and Rus­sian re­la­tions and North Korea.

Paal said it’s hard for him to vote for Trump or Clin­ton. “I haven’t de­cided,” he said.

Ad­vice for new pres­i­dent

Asked for his ad­vice to the new US ad­min­is­tra­tion on China pol­icy, Paal said the US needs to re-en­er­gize the con­cept of diplo­macy. “We tried to solve ev­ery prob­lem with the se­cu­rity or mil­i­tary ac­tion,” he said. “You have to step back and ask: `Isn’t there a way we can han­dle this con­flict more ef­fec­tively?’”

Thomas Chris­ten­son, a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Univer­sity and a for­mer deputy as­sis­tantsec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs un­der the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, crit­i­cized the US re­bal­ance to Asia strat­egy in a re­cent talk at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. He said that it was hard for mod­er­ates in China to win de­bates at home be­cause the pol­icy, in­clud­ing the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), has been per­ceived as ex­clud­ing and con­tain­ing China.

Chris­ten­son be­lieves it was un­nec­es­sary for the US to con­duct free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions in such a high-pro­filed way, such as hav­ing a CNN crew on­board fly­ing in the South China Sea.

“I said it all the time that we keep trig­ger­ing the worst re­sponse from China, rather than try­ing to get more flex­i­ble re­sponse from China,” Paal said.

For­mer Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary David Miliband, now head of the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee, ar­gued in the CNN Global Pub­lic Square pro­gram on Sun­day that China wants to re­form and re­build the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, not un­der­mine it or cre­ate a par­al­lel sys­tem, an ar­gu­ment that is of­ten not ac­cepted by US politi­cians.

To Miliband, the cur­rent in­ter­na­tional sys­tem is not work­ing prop­erly to ad­dress a wide range of ur­gent is­sues.

Kishore Mah­bubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, agreed that China wants to re­build and strengthen the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, and not un­der­mine it.

Obama has fre­quently played the geopo­lit­i­cal card and re­peat­edly said that “if we don’t write rules, China will” in a bid to sell the con­tro­ver­sial TPP agree­ment to Amer­i­cans.

Mah­bubani said that Clin­ton will be a far bet­ter pres­i­dent than Trump. “But it will be an ab­so­lute mis­take for Hil­lary Clin­ton to come to of­fice and say, ‘ Hey, I know ex­actly how the world works, and I know ex­actly what to do,’ be­cause the world has changed fun­da­men­tally,” he said.

The for­mer se­nior Sin­ga­porean diplo­mat said “The Post-Amer­i­can World” has come, Hil­lary Clin­ton Don­ald Trump

I do not ex­pect ma­jor ups and downs in the re­la­tion­ship in the post-Obama era. No Amer­i­can or Chi­nese leader will in­ten­tion­ally jeop­ar­dize this re­la­tion­ship.”

Hil­lary Clin­ton Don­ald Trump Hil­lary Clin­ton Don­ald Trump re­fer­ring to the book of CNN host Fa­reed Zakaria. “So it will be a dif­fi­cult job for Hil­lary Clin­ton when she be­comes pres­i­dent, be­cause sud­denly she has to un­learn many of the in­stincts she had in the past and de­velop new in­stincts.

“But if she re­learns what the new world is about, makes an ef­fort to reach out to Asia, Asia will re­ceive her very warmly,” Mah­bubani said.

Con­tact the writer at chen­wei­hua@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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