How China sees the election
November 5th, 2012
07:05 PM ET

How China sees the election

By Shen Dingli, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Shen Dingli is director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai. This is the last in our series of articles looking at how the world views the presidential election. The views expressed are his own.

As Americans head to the polls to elect their president, many in China – which itself is seeing a leadership transition – are watching closely.

Being the incumbent, President Barack Obama has the resources and visibility that come with his office at his disposal, and incumbents in recent years have generally fared well in U.S. elections. And Obama’s health care reforms – which he has argued will benefit tens of millions of Americans – would likely be enough to sway many Chinese, were they allowed to vote.

But what of U.S. policy toward China?

President Obama has called for the building of a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive” relationship with China. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that mistrust between the two countries has actually grown since Obama took office.

More from CNN: China's struggle from within

The Obama administration saw a smooth first year in U.S.-China ties when it came to power in 2009 – the president agreed to launch the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, arguably the first high-level annual exchange that could truly be described as “strategic.” In addition, Obama also undertook a state visit to Beijing in the first year of his presidency. Such steps contributed to what can only be described as the smoothest Sino-U.S. ties under an incoming U.S. president since relations were normalized in the 1970s.

However, the cordial atmosphere didn’t last long. At the end of 2009, there recriminations following the Copenhagen climate summit. The row over who was to blame for the lack of progress at the talks was compounded by Washington’s decision to follow through with President Bush’s sale of weapons to Taiwan (January 2010) as well as Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama (February 2010). Bilateral ties, already cool, were further hit by a further announced weapons sale and another meeting between the president and the Dalai Lama.

Of course, it isn’t easy for any country – including the United States – to adapt to China’s rapid rise and the phenomenal changes that are taking place in the country. But the insistence of the U.S. on continuing regular reconnaissance missions close to Chinese territory has increasingly riled China, even as Beijing has grown more firm in its claims over parts of the South China Sea – claims that have unsettled the United States and some of its regional allies.

More from GPS: Why Obama has disappointed India

Yet, instead of communicating with China at the highest levels to clarify respective positions and dispel distrust, President Obama has called for a U.S. pivot back to Asia, to “rebalance” the continent, a move clearly aimed at using the U.S. military to check China. This simplistic approach, as China sees it, was bound to invite deeper mistrust.

This reality is particularly unfortunate as President Obama, initially at least, seemed genuinely determined to take steps to boost China-U.S. relations for the future. His “100,000 strong” initiative, for example, suggested a major effort to promote student exchange with an eye on the two countries’ futures. Likewise, Obama’s reception of Xi Jinping, expected to be China’s next president, was well received.

But despite such promise, Obama’s presidency has been prone to awkward swings in relations with China, and there has been a failure to engage China consistently and persistently. As a result, Chinese overall have an ambivalent view of Obama’s presidency.

None of this is to suggest that China doesn’t also have work to do in improving relations. But if there is one lesson for the next American president – whether it is a reelected Obama or a President Romney – it is that improving communication is vital if Sino-U.S. ties are to have any hope of stability.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Asia • Barack Obama • China • Foreign Policy • Mitt Romney

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soundoff (14 Responses)
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    November 6, 2012 at 2:23 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    The future of the Sino-American relationship is determined by 2 factors: the US economy and China's rise to global power.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:56 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      A weak economy in the US and a strong China would bound to be problematic. The ideal outcome would be to create an equilibrum.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:57 am | Reply
    • Anti_Ignorants

      How's a strong China problematic? It's the US politicians that keeps on using China as a boogeyman while maintaining the military industrial complex. The only danger to the world is the US world police, no other nations get involved into other nation's affairs more.
      STOP FOOLING YOUR SELF! There needs to be strong nations to watch the policemen.... I could say the same for the police in the US, too trigger happy....

      November 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      The two factors are:
      1. will you continue to bend over and let the Chinese phuck your azz?
      2. will you continue to zuck their kwok and swallow their kum?

      November 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  3. deep blue

    In the first few years of President Obama's term, China made some foreign policy missteps that angered many of its neighbors. Looking at the world from the prism of US policy is often the convenient, Amerocentric school of thought, but I think looking at the effect of the Chinese government's actions on US China relations would be far more insightful.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  4. deep blue

    In the first few years of President Obama's term, China made some foreign policy missteps that angered many of its neighbors. Looking at the world from the prism of US policy is often the convenient, Amerocentric school of thought, but I think looking at the effect of the Chinese government's actions on US China relations would be far more insightful

    November 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  5. Tony

    The Taiwanese n many countries in south east Asia are boosting American military purchases for now while the US is the global military power, n begin selling these to China at a profit when China becomes the leading economic n military power.

    Everyone in Asia knows that the US won't be able to commit to an Asian defense as they treat Asian lives like dirt (see the way the US massacred 1.5 million Filipinos in the 1900s after encouraging them to rise up against the Spanish empire for liberty, colonizing Philippines in the process.) furthermore, the US is not willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions to defend south east Asia while China is willing to sacrifice a billion to call the US' bluff. Besides, there is too much for the US to lose just over some Asiatic peoples.

    I think this is a very cleverly planned policy of encirclement in the South East Asian region with the US throwing resources into the region when the strategic n psychological aspect of war is already lost before any fighting has begun, with China (and the majority of south east Asian nations except for the remaining few antagonists) profiting immensely from the process. The Asia pivot looks good on paper, but somewhere in Beijing, the military strategists are smiling at having trapped the US so easily in the South East Asian region. Now they await the chance to strike in the mid east n Africa where a weakened American presence n strong anti American, anti imperialistic Arab population seeks vengeance against the US.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
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