Like Senator McCain, Senator Obama has assembled a team of experienced and mainstream advisors who advise him on foreign policy. His balanced policy statements on China and Asia reflect their combined expertice, charting a course for US-China relations that is unlikely to deviate from its current course. Obama likely benefits from his running mate’s experience – Senator Biden quips that he has forgotten more about foreign policy than most of his colleagues ever knew.
Like Senator McCain, Senator Obama has published finely crafted essays in Foreign Affairs and the American Chamber of Commerce in China’s magazine. Like McCain, he pledges to actively engage China while supporting our allies in the region, hold China acountable on their relations with “genocidal and repressive regimes” and “make” China a constructive partner on International Energy and Environmental Issues. (I am not sure anyone can “make” China do anything, but we can certainly encourage them to do the right thing, like continuing to gradually increase the value of their currency.)

During his debates with Hillary Clinton, I always had an ear tuned to their treatment of China and foreign trade, as they both walked a tight rope over a net filled with free-trading Canadians and labor unions. Senator Obama had the best gaff in my opinion at the height of the product safety crisis when he said he would ban Chinese toys. A little explaining from his friends clarified that he meant to say he would ban lead-painted Chinese toys. Thankfully, we will still have Christmas this year. At his acceptance speech at the convention, Obama said “China” only once, in reference to jobs being shipped overseas and toy safety.

One issue that stands out in a fact sheet issued by the Obama-Biden machine is a pledge to maintain vigilence and prepare for China’s military modernization through closer relations, doing “all we can to guarantee China’s rise is peaceful.” The fact sheet states:

Barack Obama and Joe Biden also favor expansion of military-to-military relations to improve transparency, broaden communication, and improve our understanding of the ultimate goals and motivations of China’s military development.

Building mil-mil relations with China is an opportunity the Bush administration has missed. While some critics claim that China learns more about the US when its delegations come to visit than vice versa, it is not the principle of having or not having relations that poses the problem. The challenge is to equip ourselves to engage China more effectively. Building Chinese language skills in the US military and government is one step. Changing the way we interact with Chinese counterparts in the military is another, and I imagine that some Obama advisors have a few ideas they might like to try out.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, when I was a student in China in 1992, the US elections seemed very remote. Senator Obama has never been to the mainland before, so I assume China is conceptually remote to him too. If he gets elected, that will undoubtedly change.