Five Reasons Obama Will Go Slow on China

Starbucks Guomao 1

I thought this was a work day

1133 hrs.

Now that America’s new president is settling into the Oval Office and a few of his key cabinet appointments have been confirmed, some folks here in Beijing are starting to wonder when Obama is going to start making changes to America’s policies toward China.

Don’t hold your breath. For a number of reasons, you should not expect significant changes in the China-US relationship in the near term.

1. New Kids in Town: Obama hit the ground running, but the velocity of initiatives coming first out of the transition team and now the White House belies the complexity of getting a new administration into place. It will be months before all of the President’s appointees are in their offices and operating smoothly with their own teams. Meantime, the West Wing is focused on building momentum on the problems worrying the American people, and sustaining the bipartisan sentiment in the Capital.

2. China was not a Campaign Issue: For a host of reasons, China was not a major issue in the Presidential campaign, allowing Obama a flexibility on China enjoyed by no other president in the past two decades. Able to take a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to US-China relations (Inaugural remarks notwithstanding), the administration can allow its approach to China to be dictated by the role it needs China to play in addressing its more pressing economic, security, and diplomatic challenges.

3. Better Things to Do: Team Obama has plenty of urgent issues on its plate: the financial crisis, the economy, the stimulus program, a new economic system, Iraq, Afghanistan, calming the Middle East, terrorism, and repairing the rift in trans-Atlantic relations wrought by eight years of neo-conservative unilateralism, just to name a few. American policy toward the PRC will be dictated by these issues more than any other factor, meaning that China will be approached once the administration is moving toward solutions on those issues.

4. No Ambassador: There is as yet no U.S. ambassador to China, and to my knowledge the President has named no candidate for the role. Given the extensive approval and briefing process, we probably won’t see Obama’s ambassador presenting his credentials before April, and perhaps not until May. Work will continue at the embassy, but significant new initiatives in the relationship will likely wait for the new ambassador

5. Getting to Know You: Like a couple of fighters sizing each other up in the ring, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and their respective administrations are watching each other carefully, making initial contacts, and learning enough about the other side to understand the basis on which the relationship will proceed. This is as it should be. It is no exaggeration to call the Sino-US relationship “the most important bilateral dialogue in the world today,” and as such improving those ties and the fruits thereof demands deliberate care, not headlong haste.

I would bet on six months before we see a significant initiative, and a year before we see state visits. Obama and Hu may well have an initial sit down at a major global conference, but short of that, relations will likely be status-quo ante in the near future.

Recently a diplomat asked me who I thought would be the first senior administration official to visit China. My money is on Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As a carryover from the previous administration, he would be the ideal messenger to talk about how the new team plans to take a more multilateral, inclusive approach to global security than its predecessor, and would signal recognition of the growing role China is and should be playing in addressing piracy, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other issues.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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