Barack Obama, a U.S. Senator and candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is a brilliant rhetorician. But it’s notoriously hard to pin down his opinions on discrete policy areas and questions. It’s reasonable to speculate that the campaign is intentionally avoiding staking out policy ground unnecessarily this early in the campaign. But recently, some hints about Obama’s thinking on China have emerged.
China Redux compiled two quotes, of which this is the more interesting. From his prepared remarks for a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (when I was an intern there, it was the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations):
And as we strengthen NATO, we should also seek to build new alliances and relationships in other regions important to our interests in the 21st century. In Asia, the emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, but also poses new challenges for the United States and our partners in the region. It is time for the United States to take a more active role here – to build on our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six Party talks. As President, I intend to forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability, prosperity and help us confront common transnational threats such as tracking down terrorists and responding to global health problems like avian flu.
This is by no means a profound statement; but Obama’s call for stronger involvement in East Asia and a “regional framework” tells us that he views the region holistically rather than as a series of bilateral relationships. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but he seems to be on the right page.
I want to add to the Redux post one more statement by Obama on the importance of East Asia and China. This is from the first Democratic primary presidential debate of the 2008 election cycle last night:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, what are America’s three most important allies around the world?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think the European Union as a whole has been a long-standing ally of ours. And through NATO, we’ve been able to make some significant progress. Afghanistan, in particular, is an area where we should be focusing. NATO has made real contributions there. Unfortunately, because of the distraction of Iraq, we have not finished the job in terms of making certain that we are driving back the Taliban, stabilizing the Karzai government, capturing bin Laden and making sure that we’ve rooted out terrorism in that region. We also have to look east, because increasingly the center of gravity in this world is shifting to Asia. Japan has been an outstanding ally of ours for many years, but obviously China is rising, and it’s not going away. They’re neither our enemy nor our friend. They’re competitors. But we have to make sure that we have enough military-to-military contact and forge enough of a relationship with them that we can stabilize the region. That’s something I’d like to do as president.
This frame of China as competitor might seem to part with the cooperative answer he gave before, but the argument seems to be: We can compete and cooperate at the same time. To be sure, neither the United States nor China can compete without a baseline of security and cooperation to keep markets moving.