What China Sees When It Looks at Us

Harry Harding has a rundown at the Asia Foundation’s In Asia blog of Chinese perspectives on President Barack Obama and how they have evolved from the campaign to the transition to the early administration. In a nutshell, the Chinese government prefers known quantities to newcomers promising change because it doesn’t like surprises (vive la revolution!), prefers Republicans to Democrats because the former are less likely to harp on things like human rights (although McCain’s League of Democracies caused them some concern), is perfectly happy with the benign neglect accorded China by this year’s campaign rhetoric, and reads Congressional transcripts (like Timothy Geithner’s out-of-context “currency manipulation” quotes) more carefully and closely than both the Western and Chinese press.

What comes through most, though, is the recurring Chinese anxiety over the early period of any new administration, when ideological differences must be managed and kept from escalating until the new American president finally realizes that America is simply too big to fail, and that China represents the bailout fund.

More seriously, while the major component of the U.S.-China relationship is obviously still the economic angle, the political management of Asian stability and prosperity is assuming an increasingly prominent place. How that transition from economic to political relationship is managed will determine the shape of things to come in Asia and the world. It’s a tricky balancing act that involves reassuring old friends that irrelevant does not mean unimportant (e.g., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Japan), making room for China without leaving anxious friends exposed, and accepting the limits of our liberalizing influence on China without abandoning the low-end threshhold of our expectations. All in the volatile climate of a global economic downturn. Fortunately, in this region, the Obama administration will be able to build on the legacy it inherits from the Bush presidency, rather than dig itself out from under the ruins.