Why Beijing prefers Obama

The tight presidential race in the United States has raised anxieties around the world about the future of American foreign policy. Nowhere is the level of uncertainty and fear higher than in Beijing.

The question of who wins on November 6 is a particulary high-stakes matter for China, because Washington's China policy has become a focal point in the presidential race. Republican challenger Mitt Romney has seized on China's undervalued currency and infringement of intellectual property rights and vowed to impose sanctions on Beijing as soon as he walks into the White House. In his own defence, President Barack Obama has touted his record of levying extra tariffs on Chinese goods and suing China in the World Trade Organisation.

In Beijing, senior officials are watching this anti-China slugfest in the US with a mixture of resentment and worry. As the proverbial punching bag for American politicians, the Chinese government is getting sick and tired of being accused of various wrongdoings by Washington, especially since some of the accusations are not true. For example, the value of the Chinese currency has, in fact, risen more than 10 per cent in real terms, and the Chinese yuan is close to the market rate in the minds of investors. At the same time, Chinese leaders obviously fear that some of the tough rhetoric on China may have real consequences, leading to a serious deterioration in Sino-American relations.

Like leaders in most other countries, the Chinese would prefer to see Obama re-elected. This is not because they love him. They simply fear and loathe the idea of a Romney administration, which they expect will be arrogant, self-righteous, and confrontational.

To be sure, Beijing has also been severely disappointed by Obama. When Obama started his presidency in early 2009, he wanted to elevate US-China ties and make China a partner in tackling global challenges. To win Chinese goodwill, he downplayed human rights issues and went out of his way to show Beijing his recognition of its geopolitical importance. However, he switched to a tougher policy after he and his advisers concluded that this softer approach was not working. His new China policy has more teeth. On the trade front, he is not afraid to use America's anti-dumping weapon against surging Chinese imports. More importantly, on the geopolitical front, he has adopted a realpolitik-based security strategy, dubbed the "pivot to Asia", which is seen to be squarely directed at China's growing clout in the region. Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration has thrown its support behind many of China's neighbours like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, which have ugly ongoing maritime territorial disputes with China.

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