Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 22

On November 3, Chinese President Hu Jintao promptly congratulated George W. Bush on his re-election, indicating Beijing’s willingness to continue to work with the current administration on issues of mutual concern. The U.S. presidential election was closely watched not only by Chinese foreign policy experts and academics, but by unprecedented numbers of average Chinese citizens who increasingly see U.S. domestic politics as having a direct affect on their own lives.

After months of defending his decision to invade Iraq, there is hope that President Bush has new appreciation for the political liabilities of acting alone overseas and alienating allies. However, there is concern in China that the President and the Republican Party’s perceived post-election mandate could spark a renewed interest in aggressively resolving outstanding security challenges around the world, which could put China and the U.S. on a collision course. With little expectation that multilateral institutions such as the United Nations will intervene to prevent severe human rights abuses, humanitarian disasters, international terrorism or the deterioration of failing states, it is unlikely that the United States will retreat into its shell for the next four years. Faced with this reality, China must deal with the costs and benefits of working with a confident U.S. President to promote global security.

Election Interest Indicates China is Globalizing

While many disagree with President Bush’s approach to foreign policy, the Chinese people enthusiastically followed the U.S. election, as they increasingly see American interests aligned with their own. The “American Dream” is front and center during election-year politicking, as candidates earnestly solicit the support of the people with promises of economic prosperity at home and security abroad – a distinctly different approach than the Chinese political model. These topics highlight the similarities between the hopes and aspirations the average Chinese and American citizen have for their respective counties and families. Such a sense of universality speaks strongly of China’s emergence as a truly globalized country.

Through the remarkable level of attention paid to the U.S. election this year, Chinese people have also deepened their appreciation for and understanding of the democratic process. The election was an educational experience for those who did not previously understand the electoral process or key democratic concepts, such as universal suffrage and multiparty governance. The average person’s interest in the election might even help develop an appreciation in China for government accountability, civic responsibility, participation and the concept that the government exists to “serve the people.” Although many average Chinese hoped for a Kerry victory and a “less intrusive,” more liberal U.S. foreign policy, opinion quickly shifted in favor of Bush following his re-election because he enjoys the popular support of the American public. The notion of democracy and the evolution of the average person’s self-identification from a member of “the people” or “the masses” into a “citizen” (with all the rights and responsibilities that the concept implies), will likely generate improved governance in China.

Official Perspectives on Bush’s Victory

The fact that the Chinese government genuinely welcomes a Bush victory is reflected not only by the standard congratulations sent by Chinese President Hu Jintao, but by the largely stable relationship that has been established since the tumultuous events of 2001. During the first Bush administration, Sino-US relations were described by American officials as being the best ever, reflecting to some extent the perception that their Chinese counterparts have supported the U.S. on important issues of mutual concern, including the Global War on Terror and North Korea. For the Chinese, the re-election of Bush presents four more years of dealing with a known entity, with a positive foundation on which to build upon. Chinese experts commonly describe a “China-cycle” for each new president, starting at a low point in relations before steadily improving, as the President realizes the strategic importance of a rising China. With a second term and solid, on-going cooperation, Chinese leaders and policy experts see the positive trends continuing. Additionally, there had been some concerns over a Kerry victory: trade friction could have increased, potentially harming China’s domestic economy. This would have introduced an unknown element, and made it difficult for Chinese policymakers to support Kerry’s election. However, most predicted similar outcomes regardless of the eventual winner.

Though Beijing generally appreciates Bush’s strong national security strategy, it does have some very real concerns about aggressive policies such as preemptive strikes against perceived threats and an apparent disregard for national sovereignty. The Bush administration’s willingness to act militarily against other nations without the support of the international community or the United Nations Security Council appears to marginalize China’s role in global security. Chinese leaders are understandably concerned that a second Bush term will embolden the U.S. to increase pressure on China to become more proactive in disarming North Korea.

Bush’s perceived “mandate” also raises concerns in China that the U.S. will focus on expanding efforts against “Axis of Evil” states, including Sudan and Iran. China has significant investments in both countries, as well as leverage with their respective governments, that Washington does not. If the Bush administration were to pressure Beijing to use this leverage, China would have to closely consider costs of such action before deciding whether or not it could afford to cooperate fully. Depending upon Washington’s approach, China could represent a possibly potent ally to bring about change in both Khartoum and Tehran. However, if Washington does not take Beijing’s interests into careful consideration, China could oppose U.S. efforts, both in the UN and by circumventing U.S.-imposed sanctions or other coercive measures.

In any event, there is considerable debate within the Chinese foreign policy community about China’s future and President Bush’s realpolitik approach to international security. On the eve of the U.S. election, the China Daily ran an essay written by former Foreign Minister and Vice Premier Qian Qichen, which had previously been published in a party policy journal. The timing and content of the essay was poorly considered, and likely not approved by authorities at the highest levels. However, the anti-Bush sentiments expressed by the most senior architect of China’s foreign policy shows that a consensus does not exist within China’s foreign policy community.

Despite these concerns, however, many in the Chinese government and foreign policy community see opportunities and advantages in a strong and decisive U.S. president. Over the last four years, Washington and Beijing have cooperated on such issues of mutual importance as the Global War on Terror, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. As the relationship deepens, mutual interest in maintaining global peace and prosperity will increasingly influence both sides’ willingness to cooperate on more contentious issues, such as Taiwan, and rogue states that threaten global security. Furthermore, as China continues to globalize, threats to world stability will influence it more directly, providing an incentive to cooperate with President Bush to remove such threats.

Impact on Taiwan

Beijing hopes that the Republican Party will spend some of their newly earned political capital on generating positive momentum for Sino-US relations. While the Chinese leadership fully understands the entrenched influence of special interests and the skill of the Taiwan lobby, Beijing hopes that the administration will consider taking bold moves to prevent Taiwan’s independence and provide the impetus for a peaceful resolution. With no escape route to avoid military intervention in the event of a declaration of independence, Beijing is increasingly reliant on Washington to suppress Taiwan’s efforts. Beijing also identifies the differences in all three parties’ definition of a “One China Policy” as an opportunity that could be exploited, and hopes that a more decisive Bush administration will recognize China’s strategic importance and readjust to a stance that is more favorable to Beijing.

Bush’s relationship with China has been strong following 9/11, and recent developments including Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments about Taiwan’s sovereignty have encouraged Beijing to continue working with Washington on areas of mutual interest. Though it is still an open question whether a second Bush administration will do more to strengthen bilateral ties, encouraging Beijing to move forward with a peaceful approach to Taiwan, while helping to curb Taipei’s independent tendencies, will be crucial to the future of US-China relations.

The Next Four Years

A delighted Beijing is psychologically prepared to deal with George W. Bush for four more years. China increasingly accepts that the U.S. is the only world power and a “unipolar” world is the reality for the near future. Beijing does not want to provoke any conflict or competition that would detract from its efforts to build China’s domestic economy, cement reforms and slowly build national strength. Although China clearly does not prefer an aggressive United States, America’s global military dominance and presence in Afghanistan and Iraq are not as fundamentally troubling as its views on Taiwan. Assuming that the Taiwan quandary can be defused or peacefully resolved, both Beijing and Washington will increasingly see opportunities for cooperation and collaboration on a host of global issues. However, points of contention remain: Chinese influence in North Korea, Sudan and Iran could put a decisive Bush administration at odds with China, particularly within the United Nations Security Council, especially if the U.S. seeks to coerce these nations into more acceptable behavior.

Increased confidence in both governments will engender more substantive cooperation, decreasing mutual suspicions that Chinese emergence and the U.S. dominance present threats to one another. China’s desire to be a “responsible power” will also provide an impetus to work more closely with the United States to ensure global peace and stability. The key question is whether the Bush Administration is prepared to accept China as a “partner” rather than a “competitor.”