A great deal has been written in the last few weeks about the remarkable convergence of new developments within the top leadership positions in the United States and China. We now know that President Obama will have four more years in office. It is also clear that Xi Jinping has cemented his stature within Beijing, even if there continue to be questions about which groups and factions will benefit the most from his rise.
As a result of these developments many have speculated that we may see dramatic shifts and changes within Sino-U.S. relations, especially as, what we are likely to see during a second Obama administration will contrast markedly from what would have unfolded should Governor Romney emerged victorious from last week’s election. There is some merit in such speculation. However, much of it is overblown, as it greatly overstates the differences on China between the two presidential contenders.
In a campaign where both candidates attempted to paint each other as polar opposites on so many issues, America’s China policy was one area where the distance between them was not great.
Romney did place a greater emphasis on criticizing Chinese economic practices, especially in relationship to the value of the RMB, than Obama. He also took a somewhat sharper tone than the president in regard to how extensive the U.S. military presence in Asia should be.
However, Obama was far from soft on China during the campaign. Over its course he initiated a number of actions designed to counter allegedly unfair Chinese trade practices, and to counter the country’s increasing assertiveness in Asia. During the third debate it was Obama, not Romney, who mentioned America’s need to “pivot” in the region.
As a result, while much was on the line on election day, America’s approach to China was likely to similar no matter which candidate won the election. There is, though, one potential exception to this generalization, and it is not an inconsequential one.
If Romney had been elected it is difficult to imagine, even post-Sandy, that dealing with climate change would have been given a priority by his administration.
In contrast, it is distinctly possible that during his second term President Obama may focus upon this issue as forming a crucial part of his historic legacy. There are hints that he feels falling short on this front constitutes one of his major regrets about his first four years in office. In addition, it is clear that there is a degree of momentum on the domestic front generated by the recent storm that he could capitalize upon to garner support at home for a new American initiative on climate issues.
This being the case, the domestic response to such a move is probably of less consequence than the international one, especially China’s. Indeed, it is clear that developing a meaningful American-led response to climate change requires finding a way to bring China into whatever proposed solution that ends up being forwarded.
While we still know very little about the next generation of China’s leaders, and what their own priorities are, it is clear that environmental concerns within the Chinese population are growing, and, as illustrated by a series of recent demonstrations around the country, even a source of social instability there.
Given such a context, it is conceivable that China’s leaders may be motivated to subtly shift their stance on climate change from the generally uninvolved, even obstructionist, positions they have taken in the recent past – most notably in Copenhagen in 2009.
In light of such a confluence of factors, it is then possible to imagine that Obama, freed of constraints of running for another term, motivated by an interest in his legacy, and China’s leaders operating within a different system of costs and benefits, might be able to find common ground in fostering the development of a new, rigorous multilateral agreement on climate issues.
We normally then think of U.S.-China relations in terms of eagles, dragons and panda bears, but it may, in the end, be the polar bears that will benefit the most from the confluence of leadership developments on both sides of the Pacific.
Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Government Department