China watching U.S. campaign closely, but without anxiety

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 23, 2008 

WORLD NEWS CAMPAIGN-CHINA 2 MCT

A book on Barack Obama faces out from a shelf at Beijing's largest bookstore.

HUA LI — Hua Li / MCT

BEIJING — Most U.S. presidential campaigns bring anxiety to China, which fears a period of instability in Sino-U.S. relations when a new occupant moves into the White House.

This year is different. No matter who wins the election Nov. 4, China says it's confident that relations will remain on an even keel, because both countries realize that their economies are too closely linked and their common interests are too broad to rock the diplomatic boat.

Adding to the sense of relief here, China isn't a hot topic in the U.S. campaign.

"We are much less worried about the new president's China policy than in the past," said Tao Wenzhao of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chinese scholars who monitor U.S. relations with their country say they've met with foreign policy advisers for Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, and see little to worry them.

"I know these guys well," said Liu Xuecheng, a senior fellow at the Center for U.S.-China Relations at the China Institute for International Studies. "They'll be no big change."

The reason, they say, is that the United States and China need each other on a number of issues that allow crucial differences to be set aside while they work together on others.

A survey this week indicates that roughly half of China's urban residents are aware of the U.S. election, and while many are fascinated by the rise of the first major black presidential candidate, their primary interest in the outcome is how Sino-U.S. relations may be affected.

"The difference between the two (candidates) is not that great. What most concerns us is if we can maintain and improve our relations, and to be prosperous together," said Yuan Chen, a 26-year-old Internet entrepreneur.

The last two times that the White House changed occupancy, in 1993, when Bill Clinton moved in, and in 2001, when George W. Bush unpacked his bags, China got the jitters.

"During the first three years of the Clinton administration, U.S.-China relations were really unstable," Tao said, noting that Clinton initially "said a lot of bad things about China."

Bush came to office declaring that China would be treated as a strategic competitor rather than a partner, and vowed to do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

Relations sweetened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when the Bush administration sought and got China's help in the war on terrorism.

Trade ties have tripled since then. Two-way trade has soared from $116 billion in 2000 to $386 billion last year. Much of the trade has tilted in China's favor, leaving the United States with a $256 billion trade deficit last year. However, China also is the fastest-growing export market for U.S. companies.

To solidify relations, Beijing and Washington joined hands in periodic Cabinet-level meetings to discuss strategic issues. Bush has visited China four times during his presidency, and Cabinet-level visits occur in one capital or the other almost monthly.

"The two countries are increasingly interdependent," said Wang Fan of China Foreign Affairs University, noting that the regular dialogue promotes cooperation. "For instance, in investments, trade, debt, imports and exports, all of these elements pull the two countries closer. In addition, they cooperate well on security and anti-terrorism issues."

Even as cooperation improves, an elephant remains in the room.

"The U.S. does not like our Communist Party, so there's a fundamental conflict," said Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Shanghai's Fudan University. "The conflict is at an ideological level."

For ordinary Chinese, though, such concerns are almost ethereal. The ruling Communist Party has relaxed its grip on much of society and unleashed a powerful capitalist drive to make money. Many urban Chinese just want the good economic times to keep rolling, so they see the U.S. election through the prism of how it might affect their economy.

"We must fend off the financial crisis together," said Chen Ruiqing, a provincial Communist Party official from Inner Mongolia, as he thumbed through books on finance at Beijing's biggest bookstore.

Nathan Zhao, a 25-year-old who's involved in real estate, brushed off questions about U.S. politics.

"I'm more interested in the credit crunch," Zhao said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this report.)

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