China’s Obama Welcome May Be Muted

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Barack Obama

New president should Heed Bush’s early mistakes with China relations

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Nov. 5 – With Barack Obama confirmed as the next president of the United States, eyes will now fall upon China to see how it reacts. While the Chinese media has tended to take a more conciliatory role regarding the American administration in recent years, that was definitely not the case seven years ago when George W. Bush came to power. Despite his father being popular with the Chinese government, rhetoric against Bush began almost as soon as he had taken office, largely in response to his “axis of evil” comments in the 2002 State of the Union. Those remarks, which labeled North Korea as a rogue and dangerous nation, towards a state with which China has long had deep and long standing relationships, were very badly received. With North Korea at the time looking to come out of the dark ages and tentatively embrace change—Madeline Albright had visited Pyongyang in 2000—President Bush’s remarks set back years of Chinese diplomacy in just three words.

China’s media were quick to label the president as “Little Bush,” a term highly demeaning in Chinese, and disliking his foreign policies, describing him within weeks of taking office as a “warmonger” and worse, seeking to belittle him at every opportunity. Come the Hainan spy plane incident, China went to town. Within the space of just a matter of months, President Bush had upset most of the world’s leaders, being seen as provocative, and was forced into an embarrassing climb down and an apology to the Chinese people over the Hainan air crash, in which a Chinese pilot lost his life and the American crew of the reconnaissance aircraft were detained for ten days.

While political relations subsequently slowly improved, President’s Bush’s seal had been set, and he was never popular or much respected afterwards as an American president by the Chinese. This almost certainly hindered political relationships between the two countries. China’s negotiating position with the United States over trade and other issues became far more hard line than had previously been the case, and especially over matters such as the RMB valuation and agricultural policies. Barack Obama, in his drive to gain votes just last week by criticizing Chinese policy over the value of the RMB, and apparently seeming to endorse a protectionist attitude towards Chinese imports, would be wise to learn from Bush’s mistakes. An eagerness to impress, and be seen domestically in the United States as protecting American interests at the expense of relations with China when only just in office would be incautious. Far better the new president takes stock of the situation, sits down with his peers and learns first hand about them eye to eye than engaging in wars of words with people he doesn’t yet know first hand.

A considered approach by Obama towards China, rather than a gung ho approach to rattle the cages would set the seal for a far more cooperative relationship than his predecessor managed to achieve. Time, as they always say, will tell, and it is Obama who has less of it to engage with, than China’s one party state with their political benefit of continuity.

4 Responses

  • john says:

    I do not recall George Bush apologizing to the Chinese people over the spy plane
    incident. In fact, the evidence suggested that the chinese pilot had been “hot-dogging”
    dangerously close to American aircraft in international airspace for several weeks
    prior to his untimely demise. But, this author can provide documentation to the
    contrary if it exists.

  • Herge Santander says:

    Protocol dictated it was sent by the US Ambassador to the Chinese Foreign Minister at the time. But it was essentially a top level apology by the American government to the Chinese people. It is generally considered the Chinese pilot had been behaving recklessly, however the Chinese still used the incident to pressurise the new Bush administration. Such reconnaisance flights close to Chinese territory were subseqently discontinued despite being in internationally recognised airspace after China had commented that it didn’t send flights close to the US west coast and that likely American reaction if they did would be far stronger. It was seen as a Chinese political victory against Bush that he had had to instruct the US Ambassador and Secretary of State to issue an apology. One hopes Obama will not find himself in such an uncomfortable diplomatic position in isolating China then being forced to an almost immediate and embarassing climbdown and apology.

    Its a good point. Bush was very naieve about dealing with China and overly aggressive when he became President, and he ended up damaging US/China relations almost from day one leading to a more resistant China on bilateral trade issues as a result which still continues today.

  • Bryce Sadler says:

    Its kinda funny the Chinese also sent the US a bill of USD34,000 for the 22 crew being put up in a Chinese jail for 11 days – a daily rate of USD140 per member, per day. You can stay at the Hilton for less

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