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Diplomacy in action B

The US will fare far better with Chinese success than failure, says Kenneth

Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution

y some accounts, the world’s most impor- tant bilateral relationship is becoming increasingly uneasy. Trade disputes between

the US and China have multiplied, the US presi- dential campaigns are rife with complaints about China stealing jobs and manipulating its currency and China is disparaging the US for opposing its claim to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Te average observer could be forgiven for see-

ing the relationship as a zero-sum game. But Ken- neth Lieberthal, the director of the John L. Torn- ton China Center of the Brookings Institution, argues for more nuance. While the US does have legitimate complaints about China, Chinese suc- cess is ultimately good for the US, and vice versa, Lieberthal told China Economic Review. Lieberthal has a distinguished career in foreign

policy, serving as a special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia at the US National Security Council during the Clinton Administration. He is also a former professor of political science at the University of Michigan and the author of several books, includ- ing the recent “Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy.”

What are your thoughts on the role that China has played in the US election? Is it different than previous campaigns? It’s significantly different from 2008, but that’s because Obama made a very conscious decision in 2008 not to campaign on China. Tat’s partly because he recognized that a constructive relationship was in our inter- est, and he didn’t want to cam- paign on the basis of suggest- ing that it wasn’t. George W. Bush, for all his idiosyncrasies

in how he approached friends and enemies, built a very strong relationship with Hu Jintao and the Chinese leadership. While Obama had a lot of differences with Bush, he was not going to

argue that Bush fundamentally made a mistake by build- ing constructive relations. If you go back before that, it’s fair to say that in most of the campaigns since the

normalization of relations with China, this tough- on-China rhetoric has been a part of the campaign. But I don’t think it’s swayed any electoral outcome for the White House or even for the House or Senate. Tis is part of posturing in a campaign. It can have real consequences if the challenger is elected and has made specific commitments, but it doesn’t shape elections.

What has been the practical effect of Obama’s more aggressive stance on trade? Is a tough stance on China good or bad for the US econ- omy? Obama has no big strategic theory that leads him to feel that we have to compete with China across the board. He does not, like some people, believe that US-China conflict is inevitable. He is a prag- matic problem solver. But the one area where he is livid – I think that’s the right term to use – is on China’s economic and trade policies. I’m not quoting him directly, but I think it’s fair to say that he sees China following a highly mercantilist set of policies that disadvantage the US. What he has done, and I think this is exactly right, is to take economic issues that need to be addressed to the WTO. I was in the White House when we nego- tiated the bilateral trade agreement with China to join the WTO in the second Clinton Adminis- tration, and the major reason behind that strategy was that we could anticipate all kinds of future economic problems with China, especially on the trade side. It is a big emerging economy and it operates very differently than we do. If you don’t want to make all disputes into bilateral issues, you get China into the WTO where they agree to a set of rules and dispute adjudication procedures. It may be clumsy at times, but it tends to prevent trade wars. Obama has basically followed that. I know in his gut he thinks that the US needs to take strong action to protect its own legitimate interests. He’s not someone who thinks we have to sit back and wait for the Chinese to become liberal democrats and true believers in the free market. He thinks you’ve got to use the tools you’ve got, but don’t use them in a way that makes it much more difficult to get Chinese cooperation on other issues, for example, Iranian nuclear development.

What are your expectations from China’s new leadership? My own view is that the Xi Jinping leadership is likely to be enormously focused on domestic problems, to the extent that they will, if given the option, seek to tamp down international tensions so they have more capacity to focus on domestic issues. If we have a president in office who sets out to challenge China to teach it a lesson, declare

China Economic Review • November 2012 31

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