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.
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.
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.