China and America: Four More Years

Outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao congratulated Barack Obama on Wednesday after the U.S. president won re-election over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to Xinhua News:

Hu said in a message that China-U.S. relations made positive progress in the past four years as a result of joint efforts.

Hu said he and Obama have reached consensus on building a China-U.S. cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit, and on exploring the construction of new relations between big powers.

Bilateral mechanisms including the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the High-level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange have produced good results, he said, adding the two countries have conducted fruitful coordination and cooperation in bilateral and major international and regional affairs, he said.

Maintaining steady, healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations is in the fundamental interests of both peoples and conducive to peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large, Hu said.

Voice of America reports that Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei echoed Hu’s diplomatic tone:

“Maintaining a steady, healthy and stable development of China-U.S. relations serves the fundamental interests of the two countries and the two peoples as well as peace, stability and development of the Asia Pacific region and beyond,” said said Hong Lei. “China is ready to work with the U.S. side, look to the future and make continuous efforts for fresh and greater progress in the building of China-U.S. cooperative partnership and deliver greater benefits to the two peoples and people of the world.”

Chinese netizens reflected on the U.S. election with curiosity and indifference, and one political observer told CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout that China would be pleased that Obama won because “it’s better to have the devil you know.” Official media, meanwhile, presented a mixed reaction and stressed the need to improve ties. The Global Times published a critical assessment of the U.S. process and the West, claiming that the populism encouraged by such systems causes governments to shed “their responsibility to lead society” and place the overall progress of the country second to the priority of winning votes.

Other state mouthpieces took a more conciliatory, yet still cautious, stance. The China Daily concluded that the outcome would not change the nature of Sino-U.S. relations, as the same frictions still must be addressed by each side. And while a Xinhua News commentary lauded the “steady progress” in Sino-U.S. relations over the past four years, it also expressed hope that the differences between the two sides would not jeopardize their cooperation going forward:

Whereas, there remains the antiquated attitude in which an emerging player is considered as a threat to established ones and should be suppressed. This mindset has led to much unrest and even world wars in the past, but has yet to be abandoned.

If the United States does not change its traditionally hegemonic ways of thinking, there will be more and more conflicts as China continues to develop and protect its own interests.

Moreover, China-U.S. relations are responsive to complications stemming from domestic political issues. Judging from how U.S. presidential candidates spoke about China in the lead up to Election Day and, in fact, how other politicians have spoken about China in a number of other campaigns, it appears that China has become an easy target and a scapegoat for those looking to avoid taking responsibility for domestic issues in the U.S.

It is essential for the two countries to think positively. They should endeavor to prevent domestic politics from harming bilateral ties as well as develop effective dispute management mechanisms.

Indeed, as The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote just before the election, 2012 may have marked “the year when China entered the center ring of American political grandstanding.” From the early days of the Republican primary, through the closing weeks of the general election, politicians in America leveraged insecurities about China into heated and sometimes indefensible statements (see Pete Hoekstra’s much-criticized Super Bowl ad) about the threat of its rise. Both Obama and Romney ultimately found themselves engaged in a game of one-upsmanship over who would be tougher on China, and Osnos dubbed the candidates “The Panda Sluggers” for their China bashing during the debates.

Mark MacKinnon at the Globe and Mail reports that Beijing’s leadership “heaved a sigh of relief” at the possibility that the unprecedented anti-China rhetoric was, as Xinhua News hoped, “merely campaign tricks” that would now give way to more moderate positions. And now that he has secured a second term, The Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis and Keith Johnson write that Obama must recalibrate how to approach ties with China and its new leadership:

Once Mr. Obama and Xi Jinping, to take over as head of China’s Communist Party in the coming week and as president in the spring, meet as counterparts, thorny issues and strains await—from trade conflicts and disparities over human rights to the U.S. strategic pivot to build its military and diplomatic presence in Asia and China’s increasing assertiveness vis-à-vis neighbors in disputed waters.

The Obama administration has angered China by supporting calls for a multilateral solution to competing territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. It has also pledged to extend U.S. missile-defense systems to guard against potential actions from North Korea and said it will put 2,500 Marines on Australia’s north coast, moves that have stirred concern in Beijing.

The administration’s “pivot” to Asia is an overriding issue. Mr. Obama will need to decide just how far he wants to go in fortifying the U.S. military posture in the Pacific, especially in a dispute with U.S. ally and treaty partner Japan over an island chain.

As Davis and Johnson point out, Obama will have an early opportunity to project his second-term plans when he attends the East Asia Summit in Cambodia next week. For his part, The South China Morning Post’s Gary Tarode expects the U.S. president to “engage China and its neighbours in a fresh diplomatic offensive” while in the region.