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.