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U.S.-China Ties Pose Tricky Proposition For Obama

Dec 26, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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Anthony Kuhn

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On issues such as halting global warming to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, President-elect Barack Obama will need one country's cooperation. And in rebuilding infrastructure and public services to make the United States more competitive, he will be racing to beat one big competitor.

That country is China, with which the U.S. has a complex relationship. It's one that will present the next U.S. president with myriad challenges.

Ramping Up China Relations

On the campaign trail, Obama said that the U.S. needed to bring fresh thinking to relations with China. But many experts say that the relationship with China was actually a bright spot in the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Some experts suggest that to do better, Obama will need to make the relationship a top priority and assign high-level responsibility for coordinating policy toward Beijing.

David Lampton, head of the China studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says one of the first issues an Obama administration will have to address is how it will "organize itself to deal effectively with such a complicated, multifaceted relationship."

Lampton notes that under President Bush, major initiatives between the U.S. and China have been the responsibility of the Treasury or State departments.

"Do we continue this Strategic Economic Dialogue [a framework between the two countries that addresses issues of mutual concern], and a dialogue that's been going on with the State Department with China, or move it to a higher level?" he asks.

One option that officials in Washington and Beijing have mentioned is consolidating the different initiatives under one authority — that of the vice president's office.

Promoting Cooperation, Avoiding Conflict

So far, Obama has emphasized strengthening the United States rather than weakening competitors. Of course, China also is focused on building infrastructure, health care and education. How the two countries do will determine whether the U.S. gains or loses influence and soft power, relative to China.

Obama's election was in itself a display of soft power that got people thinking in a nation of 55 ethnic minorities, says Shen Dingli, an American studies expert at Fudan University in Shanghai.

"At least I've considered it," Shen says. "For example, could a Uighur become our head of state? Or could a woman become our prime minister? These things are my dream, too."

The Uighurs are a Turkish-speaking Muslim minority in China's northwest. And as fresh as the new administration's ideas may be, no U.S. president has been able to avoid contention with China on issues such as minority rights, freedom of religion and democracy.

Lampton, of Johns Hopkins, puts it this way: "I think both leaderships, going back to Nixon and Mao and up to the current, have really realized that we have both conflicting and overlapping interests, and on balance, that we can get more from cooperation than from a breakdown into conflict," adding that the U.S.-China relationship will never be easy to manage.

Many people in both countries think that conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Obama will need to keep that from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007, says that the U.S. needs to nudge China's military modernization in a benign direction.

He advocates engagement by the U.S. to encourage Beijing to be much more transparent in its actions and to construct a military that's appropriate for its internal needs — and "not to pursue some aggressive path."

As much as U.S. actions may influence China's future direction, neither side can foresee how China will turn out and whether China will become a nation that is on balance more friendly or hostile to the U.S.

Expose, Oppose And Overthrow A 'Superpower' China

In 1974, Deng Xiaoping, who would go on to be China's paramount leader, made a pledge at the United Nations that China was not and would never become a superpower. But then he offered some cautionary advice.

"If China ever becomes a superpower, bullying, invading and exploiting other countries, then you should label it a socialist imperialist power. You should expose it, oppose it and, together with the Chinese people, overthrow it," he said.

So when China is headed in the right direction, advisers say Obama ought give it some credit and encouragement. But when it heads in the wrong direction, as Deng clearly implied, Obama won't be hurting the Chinese people's feelings if he stands up to their government.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR follows the transition to a new administration through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that outline the issues and challenges facing the new president. From a broken military to a troubled economy — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

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