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Foreign Policy

Beyond the New Team, It is the President Who Will Determine the Next Four Years

Jan 29 , 2013
  • Wang Wenfeng

    Professor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

President Obama has nominated his new national security team for the second term; most important among them are John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. These two senior gentlemen have much in common. They were both soldiers who fought in Vietnam, an experience that shaped their positions on wars and the use of force as a foreign policy tool. Combined   they have both served in the US Senate for more than three decades; more specifically they have both served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making them familiar with US politics and international affairs. They are both known as pragmatic on foreign policy, labeled as “moderate” by their own parties. When it comes to China their ideas are mainstream and their remarks are quite balanced, with no obvious hostility and bias. So many expect that if confirmed by Congress, which is more likely than not, Kerry and Hagel can   play positive roles in the United States’ China policy-making and, as a result, the US-China bilateral relationship will see positive changes.

To fully understand the future of US-China relations, it is first necessary to examine the figurehead of US policy abroad, Secretary of State   Hillary Clinton. It is not a secret that some in China don’t feel perfectly comfortable with Hillary Clinton as the top US diplomat. People view her words and position as tough on China while she becomes a symbol of America’s “hard face” toward China. This opinion was loudly voiced when she visited Beijing last September. However, it could be unfair to seriously blame Secretary Clinton for the negative aspects of US China policy, because if you read carefully what she said, it is not just harsh words, but there were also many good and balanced ideas. Additionally, her leadership on behalf of the United States was indispensible for the success of bilateral dialogues like the US-China Strategic & Economic   Dialogue (S&ED), which was the most important channel of communication between the two countries for the past four years and of great significance for the stabilization of bilateral relations.  

One explanation for the negative impression people in China have about Hillary Clinton could be the “star effect”. She has always been a celebrity, both at home and abroad, there is no doubt about it. Given her experience and influence, she is much more than just a diplomat or a government official. Maybe more than any other modern time, to many in China and around the world, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not only the representative of America’s foreign policy, but also the representative of America the country. In that sense, she is almost as equally important as US President Barack Obama, and criticizing her is like criticizing the country itself. People use these criticisms to express not only their feeling about Secretary Clinton herself, but also about  America. In other words, to a certain degree, she took on the role of a scapegoat. While there have definitely been US officials who held tougher positions toward China than Hillary Clinton, none have received the same kind of attention and personal criticism by Chinese media as she has.

We can almost be sure that neither John Kerry nor Chuck Hagel will have the same “star effect” as Hillary Clinton. It can also be assumed that they won’t be as forthright  as she was when discussing US foreign policy and China, which could make it easier for counterparts in the Chinese and US governments to build a good working relationship. However, we can’t ignore the most important person when analyzing   China policy in President Obama’s second term.

Ever since taking office, Barack Obama’s experience with China has not been a smooth one and his perception of China has had its ups and downs over the past four years. When he first came into office in January of 2009, facing an extremely difficult economic situation at home, it was natural that to need China’s help, especially as there were also issues high on his agenda that he wanted China’s cooperation   on, like global climate change. China did what it could on things like economic stimulus plan, which was critical for the global situation to stabilize, but as time moved on, the complexity of the bilateral relations   also made Obama aware that China has its own national interests, which in some cases were quite different from American interests; thus, the linkage between cooperation and differences made things more complicated than he originally thought. Obama’s visit to China in 2009 was, as some US media put it, not so successful. In fact, his decision to sell arms to Taiwan and his meeting with the Dalai Lama encountered strong reactions in China. One of his major achievements in foreign policy, the US pivot to Asia, is widely seen in China as targeted at “containing” or “encircling” the emerging Asian giant, and has become the source of frustration and concern in China’s strategic thinking of America and the Asia-Pacific. During his first term, Obama never delivered a speech exclusively on the United State’s foreign policy position on China, making it difficult to comprehensively understand his concept of US-China relations.

For the past four years, it is safe to say that Obama was the leader of the United States’ foreign policy making process. While government officials like Hillary Clinton are important to US foreign policy, the crafting of policy positions has been Obama’s duty. Given the fact that officials like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are more likely to keep in line with Obama’s policies than Hillary Clinton, this will continue to be the case for the coming four years. As we examine future US policy toward China, President Obama will remain the most important person in the room. As for how Barack Obama perceives China and how his newly appointed Cabinet will influence his views, is a question that has yet to be answered.

Wang Wenfeng is an Associate Professor at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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