Fireworks Drown Out Obama’s Speech

China assumed its role as a “reliable prop” in U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, but The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos questions whether the tough talk will linger:

Does this signal an explosive season ahead for China and the U.S.? The year of the black water dragon is upon us over here—the firecrackers in the alley outside are going day and night this week—and the Chinese fortune tellers are foretelling an “especially inauspicious” year for the world economy. China does not seem to have the appetite for a trade standoff with the U.S. at the moment. On the contrary, it is turning inward at the moment; it just broke a thirty-year tradition by not sending any high-level officials to Davos, and it is focussed on domestic politics as it prepares for its own political handover to a new Politburo this fall.

After the speech, I called Arthur Kroeber, an American who is managing director of GK Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic research firm, for his take. He had some other numerology in mind: “China is a big issue in U.S. politics in odd-numbered years, because there is no election. In 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, we had the peak of the currency debates. But in every case, the closer you got to an actual election, China evaporated as an issue.”

Perhaps distracted by Spring Festival celebrations across the country, The Los Angeles Times reports that China largely ignored the criticism leveled by Obama during Tuesday’s speech:

“What’s worth noting is that Obama mentioned China five times in his State of the Union speech,” wrote the Beijing-based Legal Evening News, one of the few Chinese newspapers to acknowledge the mention of China in the president’s address. “Every time it was about the economy. He repeatedly attributed the struggle of the U.S. economy to China’s rapid growth.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was closed and did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But judging by past reactions, Beijing will likely dismiss the president’s statements as posturing for political advantage.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Remin University in Beijing, said Sino-American relations will be tested in the coming months. China’s leaders are irked that Washington is reasserting its influence in Asia, and worried that their economy is slowing too fast. Combine that with the U.S. presidential election and the transition to new top leadership in Beijing later this year and the situation could grow testy.

“The relationship could become more tense than it has in a long time,” Shi said. “Domestic politics always comes first.”

Reporting elsewhere in the Chinese press, including coverage in The China Daily and Global Times, framed Obama’s speech as a discussion of economic issues and the Iran threat without mentioning his comments about China.

January 25, 2012 7:28 PM
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