Obama to leave be­hind mixed pol­icy legacy

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - OPINION -

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ure will end next month, leav­ing be­hind eight years of roller-coaster China-US ties. Facing the rise of a big coun­try such as China, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s China pol­icy has been multi-di­men­sional and com­pli­cated. Obama es­tab­lished the US-China Strate­gic and Eco­nomic Di­a­logue in April 2009 and the US-China High-Level Con­sul­ta­tion on Peo­ple-toPeo­ple Ex­change in Novem­ber the same year. The two mech­a­nisms have helped deepen mu­tual un­der­stand­ing even when bi­lat­eral ties soured. As such, they are a valu­able in­sti­tu­tional legacy of Obama.

Thanks to his visit to China in Novem­ber 2009, Obama be­came the first US pres­i­dent to visit Bei­jing in the first year of of­fice. He un­der­played the is­sues of hu­man rights and Ti­bet, paid greater at­ten­tion to com­merce and trade, and thought highly of Sino-US co­op­er­a­tion, prompt­ing US think tanks to raise the con­cept of the “Group of 2”.

But China was re­luc­tant to ac­cept the G2 con­cept, re­it­er­at­ing its sta­tus as a de­vel­op­ing coun­try and its non-align­ment prin­ci­ple. The re­sponse made Obama bet­ter un­der­stand the com­plex­ity of Sino-US re­la­tions and Bei­jing’s re­solve to de­fend its own in­ter­ests and stance.

Obama’s ini­tial pol­icy to­ward China trig­gered con­sid­er­able ob­jec­tion in the US, with many op­po­si­tion lead­ers press­ing him to change his stance.

The change came sud­denly in late Jan­uary 2010 with the US De­fense Depart­ment an­nounc­ing $6.4 bil­lion worth of arms sales to Tai­wan. In Fe­bru­ary, Obama hosted the Dalai Lama in the White House. At the end of 2011, he an­nounced the “pivot” to Asia strat­egy, which es­ca­lated ten­sions in the South China Sea and East Asia. And to counter China’s pro­posal on re­gional free trade, he pro­posed the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship Agree­ment. These changes in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s China pol­icy harmed mu­tual trust, lead­ing to strate­gic fric­tions.

Since late 2012, how­ever, the new Chi­nese lead­er­ship has shown greater re­solve and ca­pa­bil­ity to safe­guard the na­tion’s core in­ter­ests. In 2013, China marked its air-de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone over the East China Sea and be­gan is­land con­struc­tions in the South China Sea.

The US-sup­ported ar­bi­tra­tion case in the Sino-Philip­pine dis­pute in the South China Sea in­ten­si­fied the con­flict between Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing. But the ar­bi­tra­tion later proved to be a farce be­cause of China’s ef­fec­tive coun­ter­mea­sures.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping vis­ited the US in Au­gust 2013 and pro­posed build­ing up a “new type of ma­jor-coun­try re­la­tion­ship”. But Obama has been beat­ing around the con­cept, pos­si­bly be­cause he doesn’t want Wash­ing­ton’s al­lies in Asia to be­lieve the US has ac­cepted China as an equal. Yet de­spite the in­creas­ing trade fric­tions and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences between the two sides, their eco­nomic and peo­ple-to-peo­ple re­la­tions are be­com­ing stronger. By the end of 2015, the US had in­vested $77.47 bil­lion in China, and by the mid­dle of this year, China had in­vested $64.6 bil­lion in the US. The bi­lat­eral trade vol­ume has in­creased from $298.3 bil­lion in 2009 to $558.3 bil­lion. Last year, peo­ple from the US and China made 4.75 mil­lion trips to each other’s coun­tries, and there are more than 320 di­rect flights a week between the two coun­tries. In 2013, China pro­posed the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (the Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt and 21st Mar­itime Silk Road), to pro­mote shared devel­op­ment along the routes, which is in line with global in­ter­ests, in­clud­ing that of the US. A bit­ter fact for Obama to swal­low is that he has pre­vented many US en­ter­prises from ben­e­fit­ing from the ini­tia­tive by mis­judg­ing China’s in­ten­tions as ag­gres­sive and in­va­sive. China’s GDP was 30 per­cent of the US’ in 2009; it is about 50 per­cent now. This shows Obama’s pol­icy to con­tain China’s rise has not suc­ceeded, which should be an im­por­tant les­son for Trump.

The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. liyang@chi­nadaily.com.cn


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