BEIJING: While president-elect Barack Obama may have campaigned on a platform of change, don't expect much divergence from past administrations in the way the U.S. deals with China, say some analysts here.
"The basic framework of U.S. policy under an Obama administration will not fundamentally change," said Cui Liru, president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in Beijing today. CICIR is a think-tank that advises the State Council - China's top executive body - on foreign affairs. The maturation of the Sino-U.S. relationship over the past 30 years, says Cui, is built upon a growing consensus that the two sides are becoming increasingly interdependent. "The fact that China wasn't a big issue in the recent election is a reflection on the stable relationship between our two countries."
The immediate challenge for the two countries, says Cui, is confronting the global financial crisis. And this doesn't mean China will be able to bail out the West. China's financial prowess has been "overestimated" he said, trying to downplay ideas that China can be the savior of the global financial system with its $1.9 trillion in foreign reserves. China's own economy has slumped recently and is expected to slow further. Its real economy is already feeling the pinch: factories and export companies are being shuttered and job losses are mounting.
Cui characterized Obama's advisors on China matters as moderate, with a realistic understanding of the relationship between the two countries. The main issues the Obama administration will likely raise with China, he says, have to do with its currency rate, intellectual property rights, and trade. Another thorn will be Taiwan, which just yesterday China called on the forthcoming U.S. administration to stop selling arms to. As the top two carbon emitters in the world, the U.S. and China will also have to come to an agreement on how to reverse that trend and tackle climate change - not an easy feat during a global economic downturn. Differences between how the developing world, which includes China, and how the developed world deal with emissions are also central to how the issue is confronted. Cui says he believes the U.S. and China have grounds to cooperate in regulating emissions.
On the campaign trail, Obama accused China of erecting unfair trade barriers and manipulating its currency, but it's uncertain how hard he'll push on those areas.
"Every U.S. presidential candidate has accused China of manipulating its currency rate and of exporting goods that wiped out job opportunities," says Li Li, a Chinese journalist currently studying at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. "I don't think the election of Obama will exert a big impact on Sino-U.S. relations. I don't think the new administration will have different China policies compared with the Bush administration."
Obama's top advisor on China, Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution, quoted from this U.S.-China Institute documentary, says Obama is looking for a China that "plays by the rules." What those rules are could hinge on how, or if, the global financial system is reformed during the months ahead as countries come together to deal with the global financial crisis.
What will be interesting to watch is how the new Obama administration handles with those in the U.S. Congress wanting to push China on trade and human rights, says Matthew Driskill, Asia editor for the soon-to-be-launched GlobalPost.com. "While I think at the beginning of Obama's term things will be fairly quiet," says Driskill, "there will come a time when [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi and other hardliners in Congress will press for a tougher line of China, especially if China is seen to be taking advantage of the financial crisis." Kenneth Liberthal of the University of Michigan, another Obama advisor on China, also said that Obama could have trouble keeping his own party in line.
Where Cui sees Obama making a huge difference in the U.S. relationship with China - and with the rest of the world - is in the new president's understanding of the changes that have occurred globally in the past few decades. "His understanding of these changes is closer to reality. The U.S. is still the only superpower, but the U.S. cannot just continue unilateral policies. I think this has been realized by more and more Americans."