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 Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Obama and the American people have to face the facts. America is a declining empire in its sunset years. Soon China will be superior financially and there is nothing that America can do to stop them. The Pacific region will be the strategic battleground economically and one wonders why Obama wants a big military presence there. He won't scare China, just make it very angry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    # 22. tx-wiseman

    You mean the Americans don't spy on corporations/govt of other countries and they don't support dictators?? The Americans must be whiter than white!

    The Americans are the biggest threat to world peace!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    My only beef with President Obama is that he did not take a harder line against the chinese during the first three years of his presidency. China is country that spies on the US corporations/govt. agencies, it manipulates its currency so it can sell its shoddy goods to other countries, supports dictators around the world, unfairly undercuts its competetitors in the West and elsewhere. Despite this, it has been treated in too gentle a manner over the last three decades. Its about time the politicians around the world woke up and saw china for what it is - the biggest threat to the world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Certainly this is an article with very fair and realistic statements capturing the psychic of the majority of the american politicians during any election. That is to project their inadequacies and shortcomings (whether personal or a country) to another party, in this case China, so to mesmerise their people. Mind you, this is an old trick! If the politicians in US are so good, then come out with measures which are constructive and beneficial might it be just for their own people ;and not to take advantage of the naiveness of the people which the american politician might think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    From history, China only failed when she thought there was no power stronger in her reachable region, then all the collapses caused by corruption and inner conflicts. However, China never failed once when when she admit there was stronger power threatening her everyday. Huns, Turkic, European powers in 19th-20th century, now U.S.. One hundred years recover, one hundred years revenge, one hundred years self-ruin by corruption. This was the repeating cycle how the five thousands years passed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Lose-lose way for US and China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    For a US politician to speak truth about the reasons for its economic problems and declining power is political suicide. They have to resort to fantasy, delusion and chauvinistic abuse. Sadly for them, delusion does not alter reality. The tariffs on imports of Chinese tyres just drew in imports from other Asian countries at higher cost, losing US jobs. try a net savinghs rate close to zero, taxes only covering 60% of public expenditure, imports 50% more than exports, defence spending 8% of GDP against 1% for Japan, excessive health insurance costs.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    There has never been a case in which one hegemon wanes while another rises, that did not result in (possibly 'cold') war: Greece & Sparta, Rome & Carthage, Byzantium & Turks, Spain & England, France & England, Germany & England (twice), US & USSR, and now: US & China.

    It is possible this will end with China collapsing from internal tensions. But there may be war resulting from a clash in Taiwan/Korea/Spratleys/Japan/Burma/Pakistan. If this happens, there will be a great naval battle for control of Singapore, past which 85% of China's oil is shipped through the Malacca Straits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    What China wants to buy from the USA, China won't get.

    What the USA has to sell to China, China has plenty of and cheaper in price.

    Obama is done and he knows it, a chopped off snake head's last strike.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    americans go around the world sticking their noses , getting in the way of natural peace amongst Koreas and Taiwan and China.
    The US talks about freedom when it has 2 million people in prison, 1 million CIA employees and a Security State which tortures and detains people for years with out trial

    Today, you call them axis of Evil.... Tomorrow you call them BOSS

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    At the end of the day, fair trade has to mean equal profits. In that respect the trade is ABSOLUTELY AND GROSSLY UNFAIR. American companies were basically given free rein to expand into China. American auto companies sell more cars in China than anywhere else. Walmart has 350 stores. Yum Brands has the largest restaurant chains. Hospital diagnostics: dominated by GE. Aircrafts: Boeing. Software: Microsoft. The list just goes on and on.

    In 2010, American companies made more than $100 Billion in profits in and from China. the profit imbalance is at least 5 or 6 to 1 IN FAVOR OF AMERICA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It is funny how US is accusing China of subsidizing its companies. Look at Africa and how US and Europe have successfully destroyed every factory and every farm with cheap Euro-American products used as aid. US and E.U. subsidize their farmers with billions of dollars every year and yet have lobbied the IMF and World Bank to force poor countries to deny subsidies to their farmers. And now U.S. is accusing China of playing the game it has perfected. How funny

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    South China Sea is an "epicenter" in terms of globalization & geopolitics, & it will determine whether the US can preserve its dominant role in Asia-Pacific region. US is busy building circular network formed by major players around China - such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    China/US is about oil (again). China warned foreign energy companies against exploration in the disputed South China Sea after US oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp said it had discovered hydrocarbons off central Vietnam, in an area also claimed by China. The discovery was made off the coast of Danang city, bringing a territorial row over the resource-rich South China Sea back into focus. The sea and areas such as the Spratly Islands and other atolls are believed to have rich deposits of oil & gas as well as rich fishing ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    It's the American Dream not the Chinese dream.

    China is just a flash in the pan. Give me American dollars over Chinese wang any day of the year

    U...S..and A all the way

    @neverbeenwrong on twitter

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The message would come whether it was President Obama now or another President in the future. China is pushing heavy on the message that the US has already declined and is no longer a world power to worry about. It's military trains to counter/destroy us military - not work with it like an ally should.

    espionage cases from it's citizens are on the rise - both military and industrial, if it was not for business pressure (lobbying) the language would be harsher

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I wonder if China gives tuppence what Obama thinks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It's election time
    He's pandering to the low iq sheeple voters.
    fear of an enemy unites them and motivates them, NOT logic

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Indeed, "talking up China or talking down China, the impression is the same." Today, this blog author said something that is atleast not sarcastic. The truth is that there are very few nation states whom China could call "friend indeed", but that doesn't make much difference, because China is enough wise to handle the situation on its own. It is a big and powerful country. It proudly and lavishly feeds its people, the biggest population on the earth.

  • 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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