Bumpy road ahead for U.S.-China relations
Early in the Obama administration, China and the United States are likely to spar over issues such as trade, Taiwan and human rights. Then later, changes in the Sino-U.S. balance of power will begin to show. But a major shift in U.S. policy on China during Obama's four – or eight – years in office is unlikely, according to speakers at a Jan. 30 U.S.-China conference.
Titled "Two Systems, One World: U.S.-China Relations under the Obama Administration," the well-attended event was held at the Faculty Center and cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and the Burkle Center for International Relations.
In the relationship between a rising world power and an established one, such as the one between China and the United States, friction is a given, said Political Science Professor Richard Baum, one of the nation's leading experts on modern China.
A perennial hot-button issue between the two countries is likely to be Taiwan.
"There will be tests given to the Obama administration" to determine its position on greater autonomy for Taiwan, said Donald Keyser, a retired U.S.
UCLA Professor Richard Baum (from the left), Princeton University Professor Thomas Christensen and Senior Fellow Wesley K. Clark of UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations talk during a break in a conference on U.S.-China relations.
diplomat with 32 years of experience in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo.
Thomas Christensen, the outgoing deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said in a plenary address to the conference that he was hopeful that Obama would continue the U.S. policy of supporting a "strong and moderate" Taiwan.
Mike Chinoy, a former longtime CNN correspondent who writes on security issues in Northeast Asia, pointed out that a coming season of anniversaries could put a U.S. media spotlight on the limits of free expression in China and its government's human rights record. Notable among these events are student protests centered around the 1919 May Fourth Movement, the failed 1959 uprising in Tibet and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinoy said.
"If somebody gets knocked on the head at a demonstration, then the U.S.-China relationship is in for another jolt," said Robert Kapp, a consultant and former president of the US-China Business Council.
Several speakers at the conference observed, however, that U.S.-China relations overall were more compatible than fractious in recent decades. Economic interdependence underlies good diplomatic relations, the speakers agreed, and new U.S. trade restrictions on China would be counterproductive.
In his keynote address, Wesley K. Clark, a senior fellow at the Burkle Center and a former general who was the supreme allied commander of NATO in the late 1990s, said that the global financial crisis could paradoxically extend "a very happy and a very harmonious phase" in the U.S.-China relationship as both countries focus on domestic economic issues.
Contrasting the histories and governmental systems of the two countries, Clark offered an insider's view of military planning. One focus of long-term tensions between the two powers will be access to supplies of oil and other resources, Clark said, noting China’s cultivation of a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia, a longstanding U.S. ally. Other speakers discussed China’s growing investments in Africa and other regions.
"The sense of insecurity about oil supplies is visceral for the Chinese leadership," said Mikkal Herberg, a consultant who specializes in Asian energy issues. From 2001 to 2007, he said, China increased its energy consumption by an amount equal to the total annual energy consumption of Latin America. In fact, during the first five years of that period, China's annual coal consumption, already the highest in the world, grew by one-and-a-half times that of the United States' annual consumption.
Herberg criticized the Chinese leadership for placing too much emphasis on securing new supplies of energy, while noting that attempts to suppress the nation's demand for energy do have domestic political costs.
Tackling global warming isn't one of China's top priorities and certainly "not something that keeps the leadership up awake at night," said Kapp. However, the U.S. could set a positive example for China. "We need to put China back on the spot by doing our own part in this," Kapp suggested.
Possibly the most important near-term change in U.S.-China relations was identified by Barry Naughton, a professor in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego and an expert on the Chinese economy. The increasing inability of U.S. consumers to buy Chinese exports and thereby maintain China's rapid growth, even after the global economy recovers, will alter economic relations between the two nations, he said.
"The American consumer balance sheet has now been altered," Naughton said, adding: "We can't go back, and that means we're going to need more creativity and more top-level dialogue."