The major criticism that East Asian officials would make of the outgoing Bush administration’s foreign policy would be Washington’s focus on the geostrategic problems in the broader Middle East in the past eight years, and the resulting sidelining of China and most of East Asia on the US global agenda. This neglect of China needs to change.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent trips to South Asia (to try to defuse Indo-Pakistani tensions in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorism) and to the Middle East (to attempt to re-energise Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) have been highlighted in leading US newspapers. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s meetings in Beijing, as part of the ongoing Strategic Economic Dialogue, have, however, only been minor news as far as the US media is concerned.
After president-elect Barack Obama recently unveiled his national security team, most of the discussion among Washington’s pundits centred on how the selection of Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and the retaining of Robert Gates as defence chief would affect US policies in the Middle East. China and East Asia were largely ignored.
Earlier, in the foreign policy debates during the presidential election campaign, when China was mentioned, it was mostly in the context of criticising its trade policies, and warnings of its rise as a geoeconomic “threat” to US interests.
Certainly Mr Obama needs capable people in his administration to manage the challenges in the Middle East. But he and his foreign policy aides must realise that all the major geostrategic and geoeconomic problems facing the US in the next four years, including energy policy, climate change, nuclear proliferation - and the current global economic crisis - will require co-operation with Beijing.
During his discussions with officials in Beijing, Mr Paulson expressed concern that lowering the value of the yuan to stimulate the Chinese economy could worsen the US slowdown by keeping Chinese export prices relatively low and import prices high, which would hurt US exporters. In the past, US lawmakers have threatened to punish China if it refuses to change its exchange rate policies. But it is unlikely that Congress will risk a trade war now, given that America’s effort to spend itself out of recession will depend so much on the willingness of the Chinese to continue financing the US deficit.
This dilemma highlights the need for a long-term strategy to manage the Sino-US relationship in a way that encourages China to assume greater leadership in multilateral economic organisations like the International Monetary Fund.
During the cold war, the first question on the minds of America’s allies and rivals following the election of a new president was: “How is he going to handle Moscow?” Today, and in the future, America’s friends and adversaries should be more concerned about the approach a new White House occupant will take towards Beijing.