By Don Keyser.

During the third presidential debate held October 22, 2012, President Obama referred publicly to China for the first time as “an adversary” though he added in the same breath that it is a “potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.”  As if to underline that the word “adversary” was no slip of the tongue, Obama went on to say that “we believe China can be a partner, but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there … And we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.”  One ought not lightly dismiss President Obama’s rhetoric as simply red meat tossed in the heat of a hard-fought political campaign to an electorate hungry for evidence of presidential toughness against the emerging challenger to America’s preeminent place in the international firmament.

In 2010 President Obama set a mid-term policy course correction toward China in frustrated response to Beijing’s unwillingness to accommodate U.S. policy interests on Iran, North Korea and climate change; its barely concealed conviction that the U.S. was in decline, an international supplicant, and lacking the will and resources to defend its position; its failure to meet the U.S. halfway on the bilateral economic agenda; its hectoring, excessive response to routine U.S. actions on Taiwan and Tibet; and its unanticipated and highly unwelcome “sovereign” claims vis-à-vis the South China Sea.

Senior Obama administration officials have obliquely acknowledged that, the 2009-10 policy cooperative approach toward China having foundered, a tougher tone and set of policy tools were required.  Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Campbell observed “the Chinese respect strength, determination and strategy.”  Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes told the New York Times “I certainly think we tested the limit of how far you can get with China through positive engagement … We needed to toughen our line.”

One consequence was the administration’s announcement of a U.S. “rebalancing” or “pivot” toward Asia – in part an intended reassurance to Asian allies and partners that the U.S. meant to remain a “resident power in Asia” as a counter-weight to China’s expanding military capabilities and political ambitions. The U.S. expanded the scope and duration of naval exercises with its allies; sent carrier battle groups to the Yellow Sea to underscore support for South Korea in the face of North Korean provocations; publicly called for China to negotiate multilaterally its territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations; arranged naval port calls in Vietnam; opened up a new relationship with Myanmar; and announced agreement with Australia on dispatching of a U.S. Marine contingent to Darwin for training.

President Obama’s reelection means continuity in his hard-headed, illusion-free and pragmatic management of the complex, frequently contentious, but crucially important U.S. bilateral relationship with China.  President Obama has gained a hard-earned appreciation for the inherent limits in what might reasonably be expected from bilateral cooperation with China.  At the same time, former senior economic adviser Larry Summer’s inelegant but compelling metaphor still captures the reality of the two nations’ intertwined economic ties: “China and the U.S. are akin to Siamese twins.  If you kill one, the other dies.”

President Obama appointed strong, experienced and internationally credible officials to lead the State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council and intelligence community during his first term in office; drew upon Vice President Biden’s deep knowledge and seasoned judgment acquired via decades in the U.S. Senate including chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee; but personally dominated the setting of direction for national security strategy and foreign policy. The locus of decision-making authority was manifestly centralised within the White House and National Security Council apparatus.  Hence, the widely anticipated second-term Cabinet-level shifts — Secretaries Clinton and Panetta reportedly plan to step down, while CIA director Petraeus, National Intelligence director Clapper and FBI director Mueller may also depart — are unlikely to alter significantly either the administration’s foreign policy process or its fundamental assumptions, thrust and texture.

President Obama will begin his second term facing a familiar set of foreign policy challenges: the continuing ripple effects of the global economic crisis; Iran’s nuclear program; Syria and more broadly the regional fallout from the “Arab Spring”; Iraq’s stability; the Afghanistan military drawdown; the shadow war against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups; the Russian “re-set” and a possible “re-re-set”; North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; and a broad basket of issues associated with the U.S. “rebalancing” (or “pivot”) toward Asia and the implications of China’s “rise.”  China’s ongoing pressure on Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could yet provoke an eruption of hostilities through miscalculation that could trigger U.S. commitments to Japan under the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty.

China’s stance – in the UN, international financial institutions, regional forums and its own bilateral relationships – on many of the aforementioned issues is for Washington a (sometimes “the”) critical element in shaping a desired outcome.  Or thwarting it.  On top of that, the hardy perennial irritants burden the bilateral U.S.-China relationship: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; Tibet; human rights and rule of law; a “level playing field” in commercial ties; the mammoth U.S. trade deficit that has spawned WTO suits and calls for further upward valuation of the renminbi; allegations of massive Chinese state-sponsored cyber-spying; and frictions over U.S. military intelligence-gathering from waters and air space around China.

President Obama’s success in managing all this will hinge in significant measure on his second-term core team’s ability to build with China’s incoming Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang leadership what the two sides routinely hold up as their shared goal: “a positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship for the 21st century.”  Secretary Clinton has asserted in similar vein that the U.S. and China “are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.” To that avowed end, President Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao a dozen times during his first term of office.  The two also spoke ad hoc a number of times by phone.  Vice President Biden and Vice President Xi Jinping exchanged visits in summer 2011 and early 2012.  Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta visited China and hosted their counterparts in Washington; so did former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen.  Secretary Clinton joked publicly in Beijing two months ago that she had lost count of the number of times she had been to China and otherwise met with her Chinese counterparts and senior leaders.

Mechanisms for regular, high-level policy discussions are institutionalized: the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and some 70 additional senior-level bilateral exchanges take place annually.  Secretary Clinton, speaking on the same rostrum with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the Great Hall of the People nine weeks ago, told a press gathering that “we literally consult with each other almost on a daily basis about every consequential issue facing our nations and the world today.”  Defense Secretary Panetta two weeks later told Vice President Xi Jinping in Beijing that “We want to begin what you have called a ‘new model’ relationship, and we can begin with better military-to-military relations.”  Panetta assured a military audience that “Our rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China … (but) an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific.”

All this can create the reassuring impression that a U.S.-China “G-2” has emerged to set and manage the global agenda.  But in a rare expression of public candor at the end of Clinton’s early September visit, Premier Wen Jiabao told her “Generally speaking, our relationship has been moving forward, but recently I am more or less worried … I feel that our two countries should maintain political mutual respect and strategic mutual trust … The U.S. should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  Premier Wen’s words set the challenge for U.S.-China relations during the second Obama administration.

Don Keyser is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the CPI, who had previously served as a career diplomat in the US State Department.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors



  1. Re-elected US President Barack Obama has arrived back in Washington, after offering to include his Republican rival in his plans to move the country forward.

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