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Will China-US relationship worsen under Hillary Clinton presidency?

Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., takes the stage in Manchester, N.H. after her Democratic primary win in the state on January 8, 2008. Photo: AP

There is a saying that the more female leaders we have, the safer the world will be. But it might not be as true for China-US ties, the world's most important bilateral relationship, which is crucial to the stability of Asia and even the world peace amid a US strategic shift.

The formal announcement by Hillary Clinton to run for US president is generating anxiety about an escalation in China-US frictions if she gets elected, given the fact that the former US secretary of state often played hardball with China.

It is Clinton's second endeavor to become US president since 2008, and she will become the first woman president in American history if elected.

During her first presidential campaign in 2008, Clinton attacked the economic policy adopted by the Bush administration for increasing US reliance on China, and professed that she knew the approach to deal with China to turn the tables. She also pointed out that China's trade and currency policies were to blame for the massive job losses for American workers.

Political analysts predict that Clinton will continue to use her anti-China position as one of her trump cards to win the 2016 presidential bid, as the US is shifting its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, where China-US rivalry is intensifying amid US concerns over the rising Asian power which is expanding its influence through military buildup and multilateral economic cooperation in the region.

Hardline diplomat

A Pew Research Center poll released ahead of Barack Obama's 2015 state of the union address showed that the number of Americans who saw foreign policy as more important than domestic policy for the president to cover in the speech doubled from the previous year. Furthermore, a recent internal GOP survey is further reinforcing the tendency that the 2016 presidential race will be more about foreign policy.

Therefore, it is no wonder that Chinese Internet users reacted strongly to Clinton's decision to run for American president by saying that the anti-China politician will damage China-US relations if elected president, in light of the consistent hawkish stance she took vis-a-vis China during her tenure as US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. The state-run broadcaster CCTV even posted on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like service, that "The Third World War would not be far away" if Clinton is elected US president.

The surprising amount of anger among Chinese people and media stems from their skepticism about the goal of the American pivot to Asia, which is widely construed as a containment policy toward rising China.

Clinton was a major designer and promoter of the strategy, which is her iconic foreign policy achievement as the US secretary of state.

During her first trip to overseas as US secretary of state, when she visited Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China in February 2009, Clinton stressed the aspiration of the US to return to Asia, calling for the establishment of closer ties with Asian countries. The trip broke fresh ground in US diplomacy, as her predecessors prioritized European allies for their first visits after taking office.

In a long-winded 2011 article for Foreign Policy, Clinton shed light on America's Pacific Century, a larger strategic vision of the Obama administration to sustain US leadership and secure its interests in the Asia-Pacific region for the next decade. Designed to counter China's growing clout in the region, the America's Pacific Century vision showed a significant shift in the geopolitical priorities, in which the US would deepen economic ties with regional countries and take precautions against China's potential security threat.

Clinton is a marplot in China's territorial disputes with neighboring countries in the East and South China Seas.

After attending an ASEAN foreign ministers' summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010, Clinton articulated the American stance on the South China Sea issue, saying that the US has a national interest in the freedom of navigation in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

In remarks in 2013, which were made during a meeting with Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, Clinton openly warned China not to challenge Japan's administration of the Diaoyu Islands, which she said were covered by a US-Japan security treaty.

Clinton has also been a long-time critic of China's human rights records. In Hard Choices, her political memoir published in 2014 but banned in China, she writes about her disagreement with the Chinese government over the treatment of Tibetans and dissident lawyer Chen Guangchen who sought asylum in the US embassy. Recently, on her Twitter, she called for the release of five female activists detained last month for planning a protest against sexual harassment. The Chinese government has refuted Clinton's criticism as meddling in China's internal affairs.

Pragmatic president?

In Hard Choices, however, Clinton acknowledged the necessity of developing a good relationship with China, despite her straightforward anti-China narratives clearly visible in the book.

It indicates that she will very likely act as a pragmatic president in dealing with China, just like many of the previous American presidents including her husband Bill Clinton, who snubbed the Bush administration for coddling the "tyrants from Baghdad to Beijing" in his 1991 presidential campaign, but later changed his position as a promoter of a strategic partnership with the former "enemy".

To solicit support from conservative electorate, it is a common occurrence for presidential candidates to have tough talks on China before coming to power.

Alleviating Chinese concerns over Clinton's past hawkish talks on China, The Global Times said that "her abundant experiences in working with China enables her to have a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the relationship between the world's two largest economies and China's importance to the US".

The report said that there will be "no dramatic changes" in China-US relations under Clinton's presidency.

"If Clinton succeeds in the 2016 presidential campaign, she may continue to maintain her 'tough style' as president. But there will be nothing to worry about, because she would keep China-US relationship on the track of pragmatic cooperation amid deepening interaction in economic, social, cultural and political aspects between the two countries," Li Donghai, a professor from China Foreign Affairs University, said.

Echoing Li, Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, said that avoiding direct conflicts with China is a basic goal of US diplomacy, no matter how Clinton personally sees China.

"Clinton is a promoter of US rebalancing to Asia, and will likely push the strategy aimed at containing China to a higher level if elected president. But the US' China policy will be pragmatic, stable and positive, no matter who will be the US president," Zhu added.

And the two Chinese scholars' judgment may be corroborated by a farewell speech Clinton made at the Council on Foreign Relations in January 2013 before retiring as US secretary of state: "The Pacific is big enough for all of us, and we will continue to welcome China's rise if it chooses to play a constructive role in the region."

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