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How has U.S. policy toward China changed over the tenure of the Obama administration?
Policy has gone through two shifts. We’re now in a third phase. During its first year the Obama administration tried to emphasize engagement, tried to broaden the breadth of topics on which the United States might cooperate with China and tried to downplay the differences over issues like human rights. But during the course of that first year China behaved on a number of issues in ways that many people in the United States and in the region in saw as quite assertive, even aggressive – the South China Sea, the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel and the Chinese reaction to that. And by the end of that second year (2010) the Obama administration had not moved away from engagement but was emphasizing some of the other parts of U.S. strategy in the region – in particular, strengthening our alliances and our relations with non-allied democratic partners like India, and emphasizing the permanence of the American military posture in the region. The president made a visit and stopped at many capitals but notably didn’t go to Beijing. So that was a second phase – a corrective to the initial stage.
But now, in the last 6 months or so, both the United States and China have been cooling their rhetoric, trying to avoid further confrontation over controversial issues. That’s the stage we’re in now, the question is how long that’s going to last.
What are the prospects of the United States remaining actively engaged in the Asia Pacific as a strategic actor?
There’s no question that the United States will remain actively engaged. I don’t think many people, certainly not in the U.S. government – this is true of both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress – believe that the United States can afford not to be a central player in Asia, particularly given the extent of our economic interests their and our strategic alliances.
I do think it’s the case that we’re going to be constrained for the foreseeable future by our budget difficulties, and in particular that this will have some downward pressure on defense spending. I think the U.S. is going to spend more money over time on military assistance that is devoted to maintaining a balance of power in Asia. It’s not going to be able to do that as rapidly as it might have done in the absence of the fiscal crisis. What that means is that the United States is going to be looking to cooperate even more with countries like Japan, Australia, India and South Korea, in assisting them and encouraging them in the development of their own capabilities that will be necessary to maintain a balance of power as China rises.
In what areas of China policy is Europe most likely to cooperate with the United States?
There has been and there will be even more cooperation on human rights issues, particularly in regards to the developing world where people in both Europe and the U.S. have been concerned that China’s support for certain governments, particularly in Africa, have contributed to ongoing abuses of human rights. I don’t think there’s broad disagreement between U.S. and European governments on that issue. In fact, I think there’s going to be more cooperation there.
It’s conceivable that there could be differences of opinion again on technology and technology transfer. Five or six years ago the United States and the EU had an ongoing discussion about whether the EU was going to lift its arms embargo on China – the one that had been imposed in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square incident - and the EU decided at that point not to do that. I don’t think that that’s imminent but that could be an area where there could be friction and contension between the U.S. and Europe.