July 27, 2021

Economix Blog: How Obama’s Tough Talk Plays in China

BEIJING — President Obama took a new swipe at China’s economic policies in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, and leaders here are unlikely to be surprised. China’s rulers know that Mr. Obama faces a tough re-election battle, and they know that he must address his opponents’ repeated claims that he has failed to stand up to Beijing.

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But that does not mean that they like it.  Under Mr. Obama, America-watchers here say,  the White House has swung from being too accommodating to too tough, from looking weak to putting on an unneeded show of strength. 

On Tuesday night, in addition to highlighting trade cases he had brought against China, the president went further, announcing “the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.”

China’s leadership respects the president, those following Chinese-American relations here say, and appreciates the difficulties Washington faces on almost every front. But analysts say the Chinese find very little constancy in the relationship, and that unsettles them. Ratcheting up American talk toward China another notch, they say, may just reinforce that.

“President Bush gave Chinese leaders a feeling of reliability,” Shi Yinhong, who directs the Center on American Relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said this week.. “If Bush changed his mind towards China, he could do things without too many turn-downs. But President Obama seems to give the Chinese a feeling that he is too disposed to change. He’s giving leaders the image that he’s not so reliable in playing by the rules.”

Shen Dingli, who heads the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, summed up the Chinese view of Mr. Obama’s diplomacy in a phrase: “kind of unstable.”

Of course, Mr. Obama might say the same of Beijing. China shunned Mr. Obama’s early effort to enlist it as a partner in addressing global problems, then plunged relations into a deep chill over American arms sales to Taiwan, and now has tacked toward cooperation. The White House’s toughness on both economic and military matters is based in part on a new realism about what can be achieved with the current Chinese leadership.

 But the view from here is that China’s efforts in the last two years to put ties on a better footing have been reciprocated with greater pressure on its trade and currency policies, a shift of still more military assets to the west Pacific, an effort to reassert influence over China’s neighbors and — not least — more meddling in what China considers its most sensitive interests.

“The U.S. selling weapons to Taiwan over the last three years: two batches, which is unprecedented,” Mr Shen said. “Meeting with the Dalai Lama two times in three years, which is unprecedented.”

Mr. Shen said he believes the two nations have in fact cemented some important relationships, including a much-broadened annual dialogue on strategic and economic issues that sets a framework for everything else. And Mr, Obama and President Hu Jintao do share one common realization: that no matter how rocky things get, a true rupture in relations would be disastrous for both nations. Their economies are simply too intertwined to unravel, and their competing global interests too sprawling to allow a rivalry to spin out of control.

But Mr. Obama’s latest tough moves leave rulers unclear about the president’s true intentions, he said. And they raise the hackles of certain segments of China’s elite, such as the military and its political right wing, that are hard to ignore in a leadership that governs by consensus.

Then again, Beijing may look at the alternative next November — a Republican president whose party wants still tougher China policies — and consider that, well, things aren’t so bad after all.
Mitt Romney, in his response to Mr. Obama’s address, was if anything tougher.

“Chinese leaders are hoping that the actions and words from Washington are meant for the political campaign within the country,” Mr. Shen said, “because Obama seems to have to catch up with the Republicans.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0918763fe6a2990564953f15f019a9df

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