Business, Finance & Economics

How is Obama's tough stance on China playing in Beijing?


BEIJING, China – U.S. President Barack Obama’s tough new stand on China is not playing well in Beijing.

A week before meeting President Hu Jintao at the G20 in Pittsburgh and barely two months before he visits China for the first time as head of state, Obama is being called “reckless” and “protectionist."

Chinese trade experts, political scientists and media have had little good to say about the president’s two controversial China-related decisions in the past week, although his actions on China might win him support at home.

On Sept. 11, Obama changed course in U.S.-China trade relations by agreeing to impose prohibitive import tariffs on Chinese-made tires. The next day, a delegation representing the president visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile — pressing China on one of its most politically sensitive spots.

“I was a little bit surprised because the timing was not so good,” said Di Dongshen, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “It seems the White House put these two things together and it was a choice of very bad timing.”

That timing ignited a firestorm of criticism in China, much of it channeled through official media and internet message boards. Many here, including Di, have accused the president of trying to deflect domestic political pressure about health care reform by shifting the focus to China.

Obama’s China policy remained largely unclear for months, with many here speculating that he would simply follow in the steps of former President George W. Bush with pragmatism and open trade. But he may now have chosen a more aggressive approach toward this emerging power, threatening perhaps the world's most important bilateral relationship. The decision to impose punitive duties on Chinese tires marked a turnabout from Bush trade policies toward China, which have primarily been about dialogue and negotiation since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Obama’s decision is the first time the United States has used the tool that it negotiated in as a safeguard when China joined the WTO. In response, China swiftly filed an appeal to the WTO, and launched anti-dumping investigations over U.S. imports of chicken products and auto parts.

On Tibet, Obama’s decision to send a delegation to visit the exiled spiritual leader over the weekend was not so much a significant change in political course for the United States as a matter of timing that tweaked the Chinese even more. As Tibetan advocates praised the U.S. president, China’s leadership warned against meeting with the Dalai Lama. It now appears Obama has delayed a possible meeting until after he visits China in November.

President Bush met personally with the Dalai Lama in late 2007 and presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal — the country’s highest award to a civilian. Bush’s actions were later credited with emboldening religious leaders back in Tibet, which eventually led to mass protests and riots in March of 2008.

Xing Yue, of international studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he believes Obama is not going to fundamentally change the U.S.-China relationship. Rather, the United States, emerging from a year of economic crisis, is less vulnerable and potentially less reliant on China.

The actual trade volume at question in the tire issue is small, Xing said, so the U.S. decision and Chinese reaction are mainly emblematic, and primarily about political posturing. Each side wants to show the other, and its domestic audience, that it won’t stand for being bullied. “It's impossible for China to fight a trade war with America,” said Xing. “We have let the U.S. know that we are not comfortable and happy. For the Chinese people the message has been that China shows no sign of weakness before the U.S.”

Though the rhetoric on this side of the Pacific is beginning to calm, Chinese analysts say the ball — both on trade and Tibet — is now in Obama’s court.

“I think it should be Obama’s responsibility to give the Chinese government a cue to calm down so they can explain to society, business and media that everything is getting better,” said Di.