Barack Obama confronts the China challenge

A colour guard of US and Chinese flags (file image from 12 April 2010) A year ago, China was a model of development for the US. Now, it is very different.

A year ago US President Barack Obama was holding up China as an example of what a country can achieve if it invests in infrastructure, education and innovation.

But, at the start of this election year, his State of the Union address has painted a wholly different image of China, as a place that does not play fair, that steals intellectual property and gives huge handouts to its manufacturers.

America, President Obama said, is not going to stand by while that happens, and he has promised to take action.

It is tempting to put this clear shift in his tone towards China down to American electoral politics.

But it also appears to be driven by the desire to reverse the image that America is clearly in decline, while China is inexorably rising.

In both of Mr Obama's State of the Union speeches in 2011 and 2012 China has been prominent, getting four mentions each time.

Different rules

A year ago the references to China were positive by contrast to America. This year, his mentions of China were almost exclusively negative.

"I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules. We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration - and it's made a difference," said Mr Obama, to applause from his audience.

An art teacher, front left, shows pupils' paper-cutting samples depicting dragons at a primary school in Zouping county, China Mr Obama said China was educating its children earlier and longer

The idea that China is an unfair competitor and a threat to American jobs and businesses has a powerful appeal in the US.

On the evidence of this speech, it is going to be a recurring refrain in the coming US presidential election.

"Over 1,000 Americans are working today because we've stopped a surge in Chinese tyres. But we need to do more. It's not right when another country lets our movies, music and software be pirated. It's not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg-up on ours only because they're heavily subsidised," the president said.

Mr Obama's Republican rivals have already singled out China and its trade practices for criticism, now he too is picking up this theme.

Perhaps to show he means action the president said he is creating a new body tasked with looking into unfair competition.

"Tonight, I'm announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China."

That will not go down well in China, where it is almost certain to be seen as little more than populist electioneering, an attempt to blame China for America's woes and it's lack of competitiveness.

America, many will point out, has serious problems of its own to address if it wants to end its trade deficit with China. But lambasting China is likely to be something you hear from all sides in the coming US election.

Strategic shift

Compare what President Obama was saying a year ago. In his 2011 speech he praised China as a model for what can be achieved. "China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a 'D'."

He almost seemed to be talking America down and talking its competitors up.

"Nations like China and India realised that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer with greater emphasis on maths and science," he said.

"They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer."

Now it seems the White House has decided that it's time to stop speaking of China's achievements and to start reasserting the United States' position as the pre-eminent power both in Asia and globally.

President Obama began to stress America's 'strategic shift' towards Asia late last year, and he reiterated it in his State of the Union address.

"We've made it clear that America is a Pacific power... America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they are talking about."

The sense of American decline is often associated with a matching sense of China's rise.

In China, America and elsewhere there have been many who have seized on this as the inevitable story of the coming century.

President Obama seems to want to reshape the debate, to rewrite, as it were, the future, and set out an optimistic vision of America for his election campaign.

But, whichever way round the president chooses, talking up China or talking down China, the impression is the same.

The idea that China now poses a challenge which the US must confront seems to have embedded itself in America's consciousness.

Damian Grammaticas, China correspondent Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I believe that Mr. Obama's change in tone is a mixture of pre-election posturing and a realization that China was not the partner he had hoped it would be.
    He felt that Chinese leaders would embrace him, lower trade barriers, reduce subsidies and continue buying US debt if he ignored their human rights issues and was more accomodating than Bush.
    He has learned that the Chinese will use an opponent's hubris against him.
    He has realized that they are determined to become the pre-eminate global power and will not bargain away their advantages to someone who appears weaker than they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Oldest trick in the book.

    Distract from domestic failure by focussing on the foreign other.

    Works a treat for second rate politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Obama's dramatic shift in attitude towards China was obvious back at the APEC conference. In swift succession he pledged more troops to Australia, reached out to China's neighbors and inserted America into the debate over the South China Sea. Washington's recent outreach to Myanmar is just the latest move to challenge China.

    This isn't just politics, though obviously political hay can be made from it. Rather, America has finally - rightly or wrongly - come to see China as a threat and is rising to the fight. It will be fascinating to see these two behemoths spar with one another.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Demagogic electioneering rubbish.

    Take the extreme case. IF the two most important nations on Earth terminate all business dealings. What do they each LOSE?

    China - $350 Billion in sales, 5% profits=$17.5 Billion in lost profits. 20 P/E, ($350 Billion in lost market value.)

    (1) Loss of ($100 Billion) in profits. Same 20 P/E, loss of $2 Trillion in market value.

    (2) China stops buying treasuries; America pays $750 B in added interest on the $15 Tril national debt.

    (3) American consumers lose access to Made in China, and pay an $50 Billion more each year to buy the same goods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I never felt that Obama was going to cosy up to the Chinese, especially after he turned loose his attack-dog, Geithner to threaten China, accuse China, & otherwise blame it for the US trade imbalance. (Obama must know that the American dollar is coming to an end as world currency.)
    US is a country looking for a war; the American industrial complex must be fed! Iran, China - little difference.


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