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China on the minds of US presidential candidates

Jonathan Pollack, China analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, on the US election.

Foreign policy as political football is an old sport, and it's already being played out again during this year's US presidential election.

Both president Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney are playing games over China, Washington's rapidly rising economic and political challenger.

Jonathan Pollack is senior fellow and China analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
JIM MIDDLETON: Jonathan Pollack, welcome to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: You wrote recently that US relations with China had fallen far short of expectations during president Obama's term of office. Who is at fault, Washington or Beijing, do you think?

JONATHAN POLLACK: Well, I suppose that thereís a certain amount of responsibility on both sides, and maybe expectations were a bit high with China. But I think the Chinese are right now in a very, very transitional period in their own politics. I think it's dominated very, very much by domestic considerations more than anything else.

On the other hand, there is some belief that certain Chinese, when the United States went in to its financial crisis, may have been a bit too cocky, a bit too exuberant about where China stood. But I think the combination of these factors has left the relationship not unhinged but certainly at times a little more unsettled and maybe, maybe not measuring up to the expectations that the Obama administration in particular seemed to have when it came into office.

JIM MIDDLETON: You mentioned China's leadership transition; but to what extent has the relationship also been complicated by the hurly burly of the US presidential election campaign?

JONATHAN POLLACK: Well, thatís what we're watching and waiting on. I mean right now, we see an intense focus, now that the nomination process seems pretty well set, that governor Romney will obviously focus very, very much on economic considerations, and China factors into a lot of that. And so he will try to find a way to use that as something that he can possibly exploit.

Now the Obama administration has pushed back with claims that Romney and his previously his corporate incarnation had actually outsourced jobs to both China and to India.

So we haven't seen the worst of that yet. But, you know, we've got a number of months to go in this presidential campaign. It's going to be very intensely fought state by state. And in that context, I would fully expect China to emerge as an issue. One of the few issues in foreign policy I suspect that will be the object of heightened contention.

JIM MIDDLETON: On the strategic front, the rhetoric from president Obama, from defence secretary Leon Panetta and US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been quite firm to say the least. But does that match reality with the United States weakened economically and China on the rise both militarily and economically, and does American policy recognise this new reality?

JONATHAN POLLACK: What we've seen in recent months is more care voiced and demonstrated by senior US officials to not so over sell these shifts in direction.

I do think that there is a recognition in the administration as well as a recognition in Beijing that the stakes here for finding a framework within which both countries can pursue their interests, even as they recognise there are definitely areas of contention and difference, becomes vitally important to not only the bilateral relationship but to broader stability and problem solving, if thatís possible, in East Asia and beyond.

JIM MIDDLETON: So you don't think do you that Leon Panetta's recent announcement of American intentions to base fully 60 per cent of its Navy in the Asia Pacific, you don't think that that will enhance China's perceptions, its fears of containment?

JONATHAN POLLACK: The irony here is that these shifts in forces, these were decisions that were made under the Bush administration years ago. The Obama administration is trying to use this, dare I say, as a marketing tool for their strategy. But it does reflect longer term trends that, you know, reflects the growing importance of Asia. Some of the arguments from the United States that this isn't about containing China may to some Chinese ears seem a bit forced.

But I think both governments, both leaderships have had a capacity, even in recent months, to address critical issues and do it fairly deftly, I thought, particularly the case of Mr Cheng, the blind lawyer now in the United States. This could have done very badly, could derailed other areas of collaboration between the US and China that both governments seem to take fairly seriously.

So, I admit there is a measure of strategic suspicion on both sides but the realities of sustaining what is a very, very large and hugely consequential relationship for both countries tends ultimately if not to lead to predictable outcomes at least generate some, I think, some commonsense and statesmanship, even as over the longer run some big question marks still remain.

JIM MIDDLETON: So why do you say that relations are not producing genuine strategic trust? You are modestly optimistic, are you, that this relationship can be managed into the future as China continues to rise?

JONATHAN POLLACK: These are the world's two biggest economies. They're both trying to feel their way to a different kind of long term relationship, if they can. But there are the continued legacy of past strategic suspicions. Without real rules of the road that are set and fully understood and fully accepted by both sides, it requires a kind of a level of attentiveness and a level of commitment at a bureaucratic level that really is, if not without precedent at international level, really exploring new ground here.

China, you know, again as I say, the second biggest economy in the world, itís now the second biggest export market for the United States. There's a kinds of a sense in which we are joined at the hip at an economic level. But we're not really joined always at the head and certainly not joined at the heart.

JIM MIDDLETON: Jonathan Pollack, thank you very much indeed.

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