Continuity welcomed, but pivot worries

Beijing views Obama’s re-election as ensuring stability in ties but anxiety persists over his plans for Asia

November 10, 2012 12:46 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

As much as the relationship between Washington and Beijing has been tested in the past four years by disputes over trade, Taiwan and the U.S. “pivot” to strengthen alliances in Asia, the re-election of Barack Obama has been largely welcomed by officials and analysts in China, seen as ensuring a degree of stability amid recently strained ties.

Trade relations figured as a key issue on the campaign trail, with Mitt Romney, the Republican contender, promising he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Even though the shrill rhetoric of the campaign was downplayed by many officials here as par for the course in an election year, the positions staked out by Mr. Romney were a cause of some concern in Beijing.

“China might be somewhat pleased to see President Obama re-elected as the ‘lesser of the two evils’ comparing with Mr. Romney,” Shi Yinhong, Director of the Centre for American Studies in Beijing’s Renmin University and a leading strategist on China-U.S. ties, told The Hindu in an interview.

He said Mr. Obama had been “very smart” in “diplomatic competition” in the Asia-Pacific, where he succeeded in “winning friends and often doing it at China’s cost and using China's own faults in some cases.”

But at the same time, he added, Mr. Obama had taken “a generally moderate approach towards U.S.-China economic rivalry and friction” in spite of domestic pressures — an approach that many Chinese analysts believe would have been discarded by a Romney administration.

Emphasis on stability

With China embarking on its own leadership transition at the November 8 Party Congress, officials said the Chinese government’s emphasis was on ensuring stability in what they frequently like to describe as “the world’s most important bilateral relationship.”

As Mr. Obama was also relatively familiar with Chinese leaders, having engaged with them over four years, China would have had a clear preference for a second Obama term, Mr. Shi said.

Even the usually nationalistic Global Times , a popular tabloid published by the Party-run People’s Daily that has been very critical of U.S. policies in Asia, said in an editorial that Obama was “more open to diversity than his predecessors” and “not likely to take a tough attitude toward China.”

However, Chinese anxieties over the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which has seen a reaffirming of alliances amid strained relations between China and many of its neighbours, are likely to persist, analysts say.

The official Xinhua news agency greeted Mr. Obama's electoral triumph with a commentary accusing him of “blatantly meddling in China’s territorial rows with its neighbours.” It did also express optimism, citing the record of the past four years, that tensions between the world’s two biggest powers would be effectively managed.

“Putting these disagreements… aside, the Obama administration has worked with China over the past four years to set up a series of communication platforms, drive up two-way trade to historic numbers, and agree on forging a partnership based on mutual trust and mutual benefit,” the commentary said, adding that “while the new Obama administration is set to carry on its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, it is expected that China’s legitimate and core interests and rightful requests to sustain growth should be truly respected.”

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