President Barack Obama swept into office promising to replace American hubris with humility and diplomacy. Instead of George W. Bush's visions of a democratic revolution in the Middle East and an end to tyranny in the twenty-first century, President Obama vowed to bring back love for America in foreign capitals from Paris to Tehran.
Three and a half months into the new U.S. presidency, however, Beijing has presented numerous complications for Obama's wishful thinking and self-adulation. Since Obama's inauguration, Chinese leaders have been busy complaining about U.S. policies.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has informed the world that he is "worried" about what America is doing with the massive Chinese foreign currency reserves parked in U.S. Treasuries. The governor of China's central bank has proposed that the world replace the U.S. dollar with a new international reserve currency. Meanwhile, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming has been lecturing Americans against the perils of protectionism.
If that is not enough, China flexed its military muscles by harassing the USNSImpeccable, an unarmed U.S. surveillance ship, off Hainan Island in the South China coast. The Chinese have accused the Impeccable of conducting illegal surveillance in China's exclusive economic zone. The United States maintains that its operations are legal.
All this bilateral bickering has occurred despite the dawn of the Obama era. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even conveyed the particulars of America's paradigm shift during her February Asia tour. The traditionally thorny issues of Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights, she said, should not stand in the way of seeking Sino-American cooperation on the global financial crisis and climate change. The United States would now gladly trade human dignity in China for recovery in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and reduced CO2 emissions.
Chinese leaders labeled Clinton's visit a success, but then proceeded to complain anyway about everything from Washington's runaway spending to its anti-trade proclivities. This is not because the Chinese hold a torch for small government conservatism or are earnest disciples of free trade. Rather, they do not want their country's vast dollar-denominated holdings to lose value as the United States floods the world with new paper money, nor are they eager to fund Obama's gargantuan budget as he dreams of nationalized healthcare.
Even more important, China's spectacular economic growth of the past three decades has been underpinned most crucially by trade and business with the United States, and it fears that the doors of the U.S. market may be closing under protectionist pressures imposed by the global financial crisis and Obama's leadership (or lack thereof) on trade issues.
Crowds in Europe may love Obama for being America's apologizer-in-chief, but the Chinese are not impressed that his political party in Congress inserted the infamous, though watered-down, "Buy America" provision in the gargantuan $787 billion stimulus package that he signed into law. Nor do they feel reassured that the president himself has refused to shed completely his trade-skeptic persona from the campaign trail. His administration has called for renegotiation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement signed by the Bush administration, and sparked a trade spat with Mexico when it went along with the cancelation of a two-year pilot program that allowed Mexican trucks to transport cargo throughout the United States. Worse yet, his energy secretary, Steven Chu, threatened to impose a carbon tariff on imports from large polluting countries like China and India.
As the Obama administration indicates its eagerness to trade away America's voice on behalf of human rights, the Chinese are indicating that they are not willing to overlook potential threats to what they hold dear: their money and their economy.
Unfortunately for Obama, foreign policy is about more than his charm and popularity. His hostility to fiscal discipline and skepticism of free trade and free markets fundamentally conflict with China's core economic and financial interests. Until China is convinced that the United States will "guarantee the safety" of China's U.S. Treasury holdings and safeguard China's access to the American marketplace, Team Obama can expect many more public displays of wavering confidence from America's biggest creditor.
Trade and economics aside, America still has to manage China's growing military might and deter the type of Chinese belligerence shown in the incident involving the Impeccable. Mr. Obama may yet discover that more dangerous security dustups with China are still ahead.
Ironically, Sino-American relations did not look so cumbersome under Obama's much derided predecessor. President Bush presided over eight years of stable bilateral relations, throughout which Chinese authoritarians understood that even when Bush met and prayed with Chinese Christian dissidents, whom they regarded as domestic troublemakers, he steadfastly supported robust bilateral trade relations that he believed to be in the U.S. interest as well.
Now that the world lives in the age of Obama, perhaps the man in charge could also learn to safeguard vital U.S. economic and security interests without putting America's support for freedom and human dignity up for sale.
Ying Ma is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
This article originally appeared at Telos Press on Friday, May 15, 2009.