Should Obama Confront China?

President Obama's troubles with China are rapidly accumulating.

Right now, there's the pressing matter of Iran: Obama needs China to endorse sanctions, which China seems loath to do. China's intransigence on revaluing its currency and agreeing to climate change initiatives are also plaguing the administration and fueling anti-China sentiments in Congress. The foreign policy cognoscenti in Washington are calling for action.

So, with tension between the two countries rising, is it time for Obama to get tough on China?

Daniel Blumenthal, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, describes Obama's current approach as too conciliatory and thinks it may have contributed to China's newfound assertiveness. "The Obama administration bent over backward to accommodate China during their first year in office," he told me. "They did not get what they wanted--and not only that, but China saw this as weakness and kept pressing." He recommends a general toughening of the U.S. in the diplomatic and military arena, arguing that "good relations come from China respecting power."

A hawkish approach, however, risks alienating China at a time when Obama needs its cooperation most. Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasizes the need to engage China and manage those issues where Washington and Beijing disagree. She explains, "The administration has to maintain dialogue and engagement across the board on all sorts of issues, and hope there is a meeting of the minds on at least some of those issues. The track record shows this does achieve things. Obama will have to keep at it."

On the always contentious issue of China's currency, leading voices on China diplomacy doubt whether a confrontation would do any good.

A bipartisan group of five senators have introduced a bill in Congress to set import duties on some Chinese products, but experts are not convinced it will be productive. In a recent blog post, The Atlantic's resident China expert, James Fallows, doubts that reevaluating the value of the Chinese RMB "would make any noticeable difference in 'bringing jobs back to America.'" Richard Bush III, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, agrees: "Those who call for confrontation have yet to demonstrate this course would actually benefit the U.S. Even if China increased the value of the RMB, the effect on the trade balance would be minimal because our exports to China, some of which are components for products that come back to the U.S., would be priced higher." Passing the bill could also strain already tense economic relations with China and may hinder U.S. efforts to recover from the recession.

As President Obama continues to navigate the complex terrain of U.S.-China relations, it will be important for him to maintain a balanced, yet flexible, approach and choose his battles carefully. Risking a trade war with China over its currency--while the U.S. is still in the midst of the worst recession in decades--may not be the wisest move. But, if the U.S. and China are to make progress on the host of other issues facing them, Obama will have to convince China that the two countries share mutual interests and goals, and that accomplishing these goals will in no way endanger China's development.

The ball, then, is in China's court. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elizabeth Economy notes, "A constructive relationship with China will require that President Hu Jintao adopt a constructive attitude to working with the U.S., something we have not seen to date."


Thumbnail photo credit: Pete Souza/White House Flickr
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Mackie Jimbo is an editorial intern at The Atlantic and author of the blog The Unpaid Gourmet.

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