Home / Articles / The U.S. Elections and America’s Role in East Asia: Views from the Region. A Roundtable Discussion Report
On November 19, 2008, FPRI convened a forum on the implications of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and the Democrats’ increased majorities in Congress for U.S. policy toward East Asia and foreign relations in East Asia. Panelists included Da Wei (Associate Research Professor, Washington Representative, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations), Keiko Iizuka (Deputy Political Editor and former chief correspondent covering the Japanese prime minister’s office at the Yomiuri Shimbun and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution), Chong-Pin Lin (Professor of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University and former Deputy Minister of National Defense and Senior Advisor to the National Security Council of the Republic of China), and Jacques deLisle, director of FPRI’s Asia Program. The program was chaired by FPRI President Harvey Sicherman.
Panelists Da, Lin, deLisle and other participants agreed that U.S.-China relations were an area of relative success and stability in U.S. foreign policy during most of the Bush administration’s tenure, particularly during its last several years. They identified several factors that predict continuity and stability under the Obama administration.Continuity Factors First, the U.S.-PRC relationship has become one of extensive mutual dependence in economic affairs. Both the Obama administration and the Hu Jintao-led regime in China have strong incentives to avoid serious deterioration in U.S.-China relations. Well-established and persisting features of the bilateral economic relationship include China’s reliance on access to U.S. export markets, capital and technology, U.S. dependence on inexpensive Chinese products, and the PRC’s willingness to buy U.S. debt and hold U.S. dollar-denominated assets. Absent an unlikely turn to protectionism, the trade relationship is likely to continue to grow. With the current financial crisis, China’s importance as a purchaser and holder of U.S. debt will become still more important and, despite worries and discontent from China, will continue to serve China’s interests.There were promising signs of cooperation as the transition to the Obama presidency approached. In addition to signaling its commitment to buying more U.S. debt, Beijing also announced a $586 billion domestic stimulus package. Although that figure overstates the amount of new spending, the move was consistent with U.S. calls for China to take bolder steps to address the global financial crisis and to rely more on domestic demand and less on exports. Some also foresee increased bilateral cooperation on issues relevant to trade, including U.S. advice on improving means for assuring the safety of Chinese exports.Second, in security affairs, Washington and Beijing have significant compatible interests and agendas. They will continue to have common stakes in maintaining stability in the perennially crisis-prone areas of the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, where the recent warming of relations has reduced the tensions in trilateral interactions that characterized Chen Shui-bian’s presidency. Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the risks of instability in Pakistan are other areas where the U.S. and China have substantial and at least largely consistent interests and aims. Recent signs of increased Chinese cooperation on Iran at the UN Security Council and China’s long-standing relationship with Pakistan provide promising foundations for progress under the Obama administration.China’s inexorable rise as a military and political power poses potential threats to regional and global stability. But these can be reduced if China maintains or increases transparency in defense affairs and both sides, through luck or skill, avoid incidents akin to the collision between a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a PLA fighter jet that occurred within the first three months of the Bush administration.Third, Obama and his administration favor continuity in Washington’s China policy and positive U.S.-PRC relations. They generally share the view that U.S.-China relations were comparatively well-handled under Bush and that the relationship was satisfactory when Bush left office. Unlike in many other presidential elections in the three decades since the normalization of relations (and especially in 1980, 1992 and, to a lesser extent, 2000), China policy was not a major issue in the campaign or a focus of heated criticism by the candidate of the out-of-power party. The Obama administration is likely to be so occupied by domestic economic difficulties and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that there will be little inclination or capacity to seek a major revision of China policy. Moreover, the announced and expected appointments of officials who will handle China policy under Obama are generally knowledgeable, experienced, and appear to have a relatively positive view of Bush-era China policy.Fourth, the broader trend in U.S. foreign policy thinking has been toward accommodating and adjusting to China’s rise, and the Obama administration is unlikely to bring a reversal. Lin pointed to key moments showing this direction during the Bush presidency, including 2005 congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (characterizing China’s “global emergence” as “natural” and arguing that the U.S. must “work with China, and with our partners around the world, to ensure that its emergence” is not disruptive) and then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s 2005 call for China to play the role of “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.Fifth, the U.S. will remain, for the foreseeable future, the most capable military power in the region and the principal provider of key public goods, including security of sea lanes, which are vital for China. China generally recognizes this U.S. role, other regional states’ support for it, and China’s current inability to take the U.S.’s place. This, too, augurs continuity and stability in U.S.-China relations.Sixth, shifts in China’s grand strategy by the early years of this decade, and more recent foreign policy successes, reduce the likelihood that Beijing will destabilize U.S.-PRC relations. At least since 2002, China’s leaders have adopted the view that, fundamentally, U.S.-China relations are more cooperative than conflictual. During the same period, Lin emphasized, the leadership in Beijing has made national economic development, which depends significantly on good relations with the U.S., a higher near-term priority than national unification, which risks serious friction with Washington over cross-Strait issues. China’s diplomacy also is likely to continue on its recent agenda of avoiding conflict and a focus on military strength, and emphasizing “soft power” and what some have called a “charm offensive.”Beijing’s confidence and, in turn, its comfort with the basic trajectory of its relations with the U.S. and others, is likely to have increased, Lin also argued, with gains in relations with regional states. These include the thaw in cross-Strait relations and progress on territorial disputes with Japan, Russia and Southeast Asian states. More broadly, China’s international security situation is stronger than it has been at any time since the early nineteenth century and, arguably, since long before that.Seventh, prospects for good and stable U.S.-China relations are likely to benefit from China’s generally favorable attitude toward the new U.S. President. Da noted pre-election polls in China showed that urban, educated Chinese favored Obama over McCain by wide margins. Da also argued that Obama’s election likely has improved Chinese intellectuals’ opinion of the United States or at least shaken some views that were conducive to more critical perspectives, including that the U.S. is a solidly center-right country and that a member of a racial minority–and especially an African American–would not be elected president. DeLisle noted that pre-election views among PRC policy intellectuals and participants in the policy process were more favorable toward the out-of-power party’s presidential candidate than had been the case in any U.S. presidential election in at least two decades. He attributed this to the views prominent in those circles that Obama’s Asia policy is likely to maintain greater continuity with late Bush era approaches than would McCain’s, given McCain’s emphasis on an alliance of democracies and his skepticism about North Korea and multilateral approaches to international challenges; and that Obama’s China and Asia policies would be shaped by old hands familiar from the Clinton era, which was another time of strong and positive U.S.-China relations.Potential FrictionDespite these many factors favoring positive and stable U.S.-China relations, several sources of potential friction and areas of uncertainty remain.First, the Obama administration might push China harder on issues in bilateral economic relations. Of particular concern in Beijing were: interest groups in the Democratic Party, including labor unions, that have favored greater protectionism; doubts about Obama’s ability to ignore such groups and their patrons in a Democrat-controlled Congress; and Obama’s own statements during the campaign contemplating trade restrictions in response to tainted Chinese exports, calling for revisiting NAFTA, emphasizing “fair” rather than “free” trade, criticizing China for not allowing more rapid revaluation of the renminbi, and denouncing tax breaks for U.S. companies that “export jobs.” As the global financial crisis and its fallout begin to pose more serious challenges for China, Beijing’s policy responses could reduce or increase frictions in the U.S.-PRC economic relationship.Second, the Obama administration is likely to pay more attention to human rights in foreign policy generally and relations with China specifically. Although the Bush administration had focused somewhat on religious rights, its successor is likely to place more emphasis on the broader human rights agenda favored by Democratic Party constituencies, to the question of Tibet, and to China’s support for the Sudanese regime responsible for atrocities in Darfur. Obama’s emphasis on restoring the U.S.’s image abroad and its “soft power” also was likely to support a greater focus on international human rights issues.Third, Obama’s fundamental shift from Bush on climate change and global environmental issues could increase tensions in U.S.-PRC relations. As the U.S. becomes more engaged with international initiatives on these issues and the pursuit of a follow-on to the Kyoto accords, U.S. and other foreign pressure on China to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollution will increase. Beijing is unlikely to be as forthcoming as the U.S. and others would like, given its commitment to high growth rates, its chafing at now-developed countries’ insistence that China meet standards that they themselves did not follow at equivalent levels of development, and the difficulties China’s central government faces in implementing environmental protection rules at local levels.Fourth, defense policy remains an area of partly conflicting interests and mutual distrust. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and military deployments along China’s periphery, and China’s rising military expenditure and growing contemplation of roles beyond its own territory and immediately adjacent zones are among the durable sources of friction in this area.Finally, several possible developments on both sides could affect bilateral relations adversely. Examples include: appointments to China policy-relevant positions in the Obama administration; the Obama administration’s relations with Congress and Democratic Party constituencies; the political consequences in both countries of the still-unfolding economic crisis; developments in the rapidly changing cross-Strait relationship; and shocks and crises caused by unforeseen events.
Taiwan Policy and Cross-Strait Relations
Ma Ying-jeou’s succession to the presidency in Taiwan in May 2008 brought significant reduction in the tension that characterized U.S.-Taiwan relations during most of the Bush administration and cross-Strait relations during the last decade. This has reduced the Taiwan issue as a point of friction in U.S.-PRC relations as well.With Chen having left office, the Obama administration is far less likely to have to play the uncomfortable and costly role of reining in a Taiwanese president whose moves portend crises in relations with the mainland, deterring China from harsh responses that threaten stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations, and criticizing ostensibly democratic processes in Taiwan that have been turned to destabilizing ends (such as a referendum on joining the UN under the name Taiwan) while affirming support for Taiwan’s democracy. DeLisle argued that the Bush administration’s eleventh-hour consummation of the long-pending package of arms sales to Taiwan was a positive step for regional stability and U.S. interests as the Obama administration came to office. It avoided putting the new president in a difficult position of choosing between approving a weapons sale to Taiwan early in his term, which would test U.S.-PRC relations before Beijing and the Obama administration could build mutual confidence, or deferring the weapons sales, which would shake Taipei’s confidence in American support.With China’s Taiwan policy having shifted its focus earlier in the decade from pressing for unification to preventing secession, Beijing welcomed the policy of President Ma, Chen’s successor, of closer ties to the mainland. This brought a rapid warming in cross-Strait relations, including: accords on several cross-Strait economic and transportation issues; a de facto “diplomatic truce” under which Beijing has forgone opportunities to draw away some of the small number of governments that retain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan; the resumption of the “official unofficial” talks through Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and the mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait; a visit to Taiwan by ARATS chief Chen Yunlin; and serious discussion of according Taiwan greater “international space,” including through crafting an arrangement for its participation in the World Health Assembly and, in turn, a more robust relationship with the WHO.Panelists agreed that the improvement in cross-Strait relations had not gone so fast, and was not likely to go so far, that the U.S. was, or soon would become, alarmed that the two sides were growing too close. Suspicions in China that the U.S. opposed the trajectory or pace of change in cross-Strait relations were misplaced. Da commented that many in Chinese policy circles increasingly had come to understand this and to recognize that U.S. policy circles did not view U.S.-Taiwan-mainland relations in zero-sum terms. DeLisle added that, while there was some level of cross-Strait rapprochement that might be seen as contrary to U.S. interests, that point was not likely to be reached in the relatively near term, and even if the Obama administration or its successors saw such developments as harmful to American interests, the U.S. would have very limited policy options to oppose any genuinely uncoerced cross-Strait accord on political or security issues.Still, several factors could derail recent trends in cross-Strait relations and require adjustment in U.S. policy. Lin emphasized the continuing areas of conflict in the cross-Strait relationship and noted that, viewed from Taiwan, China’s non-military power–including its economic power–was not “soft” power and remained threatening to Taiwan. The problem of Chinese exports that posed threats to human health hit especially hard in Taiwan because of the high volume of trade, the problem’s resonance with broader Taiwanese distrust of the mainland, and Beijing’s mishandling of the situation (including the lack of a prompt apology). Taiwan’s domestic politics remains deeply divided, with the now-opposition Democratic Progressive Party sharply critical of the ruling Kuomintang’s policies toward the mainland. The PRC’s undemocratic political system, and the very low likelihood of democratization in the near term, mean that there will remain severe limits from the Taiwan side to movement toward cross-Strait political integration. On the PRC side, policymakers and advisers are acutely aware that Ma is playing a two-level game–pressing Beijing to provide breakthroughs in cross-Strait relations to shore up Ma’s precarious position at home–and that any concessions Beijing makes might redound to the benefit of a less cooperative DPP administration if Taiwan’s economy continues to founder and fatally wounds Ma’s hopes for reelection in 2012.
Participants saw U.S.-Japan relations as generally strong and foresaw continuity. As with U.S.-China relations, this aspect of American foreign policy was relatively successful under Bush. Obama’s election to the presidency was generally very favorably received in Japan. Iizuka argued that popular reaction mixed great excitement over Obama’s candidacy and its symbolic importance with jealousy that the United States can elect a dynamic and charismatic leader at a time when Japan has relapsed, during the post-Koizumi era, into a series of relatively colorless and ineffective short-term prime ministers. Opinion among intellectual elites and policymakers, Iizuka added, was generally hopeful about Obama’s presidency although somewhat guarded, largely because of concerns over how his administration would approach several specific issues in U.S.-Japan relations.First, some in Japan worried about a return of friction over trade. Feeding these concerns were: the less pro-free-trade positions associated with Democratic Party rule in the U.S.; the increased pressure for protectionism that might follow from deepening economic difficulties in the United States; and the large role likely to be played in Obama’s Japan and Asia policies by veterans of the Clinton administration and the bilateral trade disputes of the 1990s.Second, Japan and the U.S. under Obama may have significantly different views on how to deal with North Korea, which is a more salient political issue in Tokyo than in Washington. Japanese trust toward North Korea remains extremely low, especially because of the unresolved issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. The U.S. move to take North Korea off the list of terrorism-supporting states was a setback for Prime Minister Aso. The trajectory of this aspect of the U.S.-Japan relationship depends on several possible developments, including the Obama administration’s position on whether to begin to deal more directly with Pyongyang or to continue to rely predominantly on the Six Party Talks.Third, the agenda in the U.S.-Japan security alliance includes “housekeeping” and possibly some more significant “renovations.” Obama’s apparent goals are to make what has been a bilateral relationship more multilateral and to broaden the focus from a relatively narrow focus on traditional security concerns. Japan’s government, however, may not be able to respond effectively to address any such initiatives, given the political confusion and paralysis produced by rapid turnover of premiers and the Liberal Democratic Party’s serious fears of defeat in Diet elections that must be held by September 2009.If the Democratic Party of Japan prevails in the next Diet elections, Japan’s security role and the U.S.-Japan alliance will be open for more extensive reevaluation in Tokyo. Issues may include relaxed limits on the Self-Defense Force’s role abroad and a still-more-flexible interpretation of article IX, the “pacifist” provision in Japan’s postwar constitution.Fourth, there is considerable concern in Japan about how important Japan is to the U.S. and in American foreign policy, particularly in comparison to China. Japan policy figured even less prominently in the presidential campaign than did China policy, and Japan specialists generally occupy lower rungs in the Obama foreign policy team than do China specialists. As a presidential candidate in 2008, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made almost no mention of Japan in her essay in Foreign Affairs. On a more reassuring note, among senior Obama foreign policy advisers, Richard Danzig and Joseph Nye offered highly publicized assurances that Obama’s foreign policy will not slight Japan. Also, the issues of having relatively few Japan hands among the top echelon of Asia policy staff and complaints about Japan being slighted in U.S. Asia policy are not new; this was the pattern during the Bush administration as well, when U.S.-Japan relations are seen as having been in relatively good shape.More broadly, Iizuka argued, Japanese concerns about Japan’s importance to the U.S. and Japan’s role in the region more generally reflect potentially intractable weaknesses in Japan’s position. Principal among these is China’s relative rise in economic power, in the hard power that China’s newfound wealth can buy, and as a stakeholder and key player in regional and global processes and institutions, ranging from the Six-Party Talks on North Korea to the WTO to the G20 financial summit. Although China’s still-modest soft power mitigates the consequences of its rise for Japan, limitations to Japan’s own soft power–reflecting the historical burdens of the Second World War and modern Japan’s lack of abundant entrepreneurship–exacerbate the challenges of Japan’s possibly shrinking stature. Also compounding these problems is the Japanese government’s difficulty in making credible and durable foreign policy commitments in an era of domestic political flux and uncertainty and resulting weak leadership.On the other hand, the leadership transition in the U.S. also offers Japan opportunities for greater influence. Tokyo has comparative advantages in multilateral approaches to international affairs and in some key issue areas such as climate change, both of which will be more highly valued under Obama than they were under Bush. Moreover, the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security alliance in 2010 will provide an occasion for reaffirming the importance of the relationship to both parties. Despite concerns about Japan’s waning influence and importance, the bilateral relationship will remain a secure pillar of Washington’s Asia policy. Also, Japan can make a credible case that a more trilateralist approach to relations among the U.S. Japan and China serves U.S. interests and common interests in regional stability. For Tokyo, trilateralism would reduce the risk of Japan’s marginalization in U.S. Asia policy and the weakening of Japan’s security that could follow from it.Japan’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities that such circumstances present depends on Tokyo’s being able to take a proactive role internationally which, in turn, requires solving leadership problems and reducing political uncertainty at home.
U.S. Stature in Asia
Panelists agreed that the U.S.’s stature in Asia remains strong, enjoys significant prospects for improvement, and faces little near-term risk of serious erosion. The U.S. remains the principal and indispensible definer of common interests in Asia, Sicherman argued. Although they have chafed at aspects of U.S. foreign policy, regional states are not eager to see the U.S. cede this role. China is unlikely to press for a change on this front. Beijing appears to understand that it does not now have the capacity to succeed the U.S. and that other states in the region are not prepared to see the PRC assume that mantle.Obama’s movement away from Bush-era policies that alienated opinion in many Asian states (especially those with Muslim populations) or that slighted issues of great importance in the region (including economic policy and other non-terrorism-related concerns), the general good will toward Obama and fascination with his election across Asia, and the incoming administration’s agenda of repairing the U.S.’s image abroad and adopting a more multilateral approach to foreign policy all suggest considerable potential for raising the U.S.’s stature in China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the region. Realizing this potential will require more detailed policies and effective implementation from the Obama administration.The U.S. faces no “soft power” rival in the region. China’s rise has diminished Japan’s relative standing as an economic and potential military power. The “history question,” the lack of a sense in Japan that its system is an exportable or replicable model (beyond economic development strategy), and a likely protracted period of weak leadership severely limit Japan’s potential soft power.Although much has been made of China’s growing soft power, panelists agreed that China was far weaker than the U.S. in this area. Although regional states greatly prize good relations with China and almost all do not view China as a threat, they also do not see China as a model. Other countries in the region admire China’s economic accomplishments, but some, of course, are already far more developed than China and many fear the consequences for their economies of China’s rapid growth and transformation. Chinese culture, including popular culture, has made great gains in East Asia but still badly trails American influences. China’s political model generally remains unattractive in Asia, particularly among the many democratic states in the region and especially in Taiwan. Recent statements on prospects for Chinese democracy by President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao (asserting that China will not emulate Western-style democracy) and Beijing’s attitude toward Taiwan’s democracy (which has softened but remains wary of its tendency toward chaos and conflict) have reinforced regional perceptions of the gap between the PRC model and the political values shared by the U.S. and many governments and publics in Asia.