New US president seen unlikely to confront China

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by P. Parameswaran
Sun Jun 22, 1:04 PM ET
Despite their rhetoric, White House aspirants Barack Obama and John McCain are unlikely to adopt a confrontational approach towards China even as it flexes its military and economic muscles, experts say.

China invites scrutiny and even anger in the United States mainly because of its non-transparent military buildup, currency inflexibility and human rights record.

China has also challenged longstanding US military dominance in Asia, and some experts say that in five years, the Asian giant with an exploding manufacturing sector may be able assemble the "building blocks" of a military superpower.

President George W. Bush and his recent predecessors all determined that they had to make the relationship between the world's most developed nation and biggest developing economy work, the experts said, and senators Obama and McCain would also very quickly come to that conclusion.

"When you are dealing with an economic superpower of that magnitude one does not give the impression of a desire for a confrontation unless one is pushed to the wall," said John Tkacik, a former China expert at the State Department.

"And China is simply too big an economic actor to confront head on if one doesn't have to," he said.

Now with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, Tkacik said there would be an inclination in an Obama administration to keep US-China ties smooth and to probably not challenge China's rising influence in Asia.

"My feeling is that a McCain presidency would view American leadership in Asia as a top strategic goal while an Obama administration probably would not view our relationship with China in a strategic security context," Tkacik said.

Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, did not jump on the "China skeptics" bandwagon in April when his losing rival Senator Hillary Clinton questioned China's record, from labor practices and intellectual property rights to its involvement in US defense industries.

But as late as last month, Obama co-sponsored legislation in the Senate that could pave the way for unprecedented sanctions on China if Beijing was found to have manipulated its currency for trade advantages.

Obama's top Asia adviser is Jeffrey Bader, whose former diplomatic career was mostly China-oriented, while McCain's close adviser is Richard Armitage, ex-US deputy secretary of state during the Bush administration's first term.

While the two presidential candidates are expected to give continued importance to the China relationship, US ties with Japan could be the centerpiece of Asia policy under a McCain administration, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Certainly, based on some of the comments that have been made by the McCain side, I would think there is a possibility that the US-Japan relationship will be the lead of our Asia policy and that our relations with like-minded countries, where we share values, might receive somewhat greater emphasis," she said.

The Bush administration recently has given greater attention to US-China relations, raising worries in America's top Asian ally Japan that it has been relegated to a secondary role in the region.

"I don't think it is the fact but I do think it is the perception," Glaser said.

The United States and China have two, key, high-level institutionalized dialogue mechanisms under the Bush administation -- the "senior dialogue" and the more high-profile "strategic economic dialogue" -- to thrash out common problems.

"It has not achieved any substantial outcomes, it has all been process," said Fred Bergsten, a former senior US Treasury official.

He proposed that the new US president establish an informal but explicit steering group with China, like the Group of Seven industrialized nations (G-7), to "jointly manage the evolution of the global economic system in a way that would be effective, sustainable and provide a foundation for the global economy."

"I call it the G-2, where you have the two current economic superpowers who could operate effectively as unitary actors," said Bergsten, who heads the Washington-based Institute for International Economics.

China is world's second biggest economy, second largest trading nation, the leading surplus nation and the top holder of foreign reserves.