Don't get mad: China reaction to Obama 'adversary' comment

Mr. Obama makes a point during the final debate. Photo: AP

 

U.S. President Barack Obama called China an “adversary” in his debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Monday, a reversal of U.S. efforts to avoid that label when dealing with the world’s No. 2 economy.

 

A day later, China appears to have shrugged it off.

 

The thoughts of China’s top leaders remain their own, of course, and it’s unclear whether Mr. Obama’s comments stirred discussion in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing. But state-run media downplayed the comment – a result, experts said, of the belief that Washington has long felt this way.

 

We’re not surprised, because prior to the debate he’d already taken a firm line with China,” said Shi Yinhong, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Renmin University.

 

Yes, he mentioned rivalry, but a rival is not an enemy,” Mr. Shi said, adding, “Obama has taken maybe a tougher line against China recently, but this is due partly to the political requirements of the campaign.”

 

During Monday night’s debate, which focused on foreign policy, Mr. Obama said China is “both an adversary, but also a potential partner, in the international community if it’s following the rules. So my attitude coming into office was that we are going to insist that China plays by the same rules as everybody else.”

 

Mr. Romney also used the A word, though in a context that also left room for cooperation. “We can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them, we can collaborate with them, if they’re willing to be responsible.”

 

Chinese media largely focused on the cooperation aspect. The English-language version of the Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, led with the adversary comment in a three-column headline on its front page. But the much more widely read Chinese version led with a four-column headline saying the tenor of their China rhetoric had eased, though it mentioned the word adversary (which it and others translated as duishou, which can mean adversary or opponent) near the top of its article on the debate.

 

The People’s Daily itself both gave the story similar treatment. The comments also appeared to generate little reaction on Sina Corp.’s voluble Weibo microblogging service.

 

At a daily press briefing on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to comment on the “adversary” wording, referring to his comments on Monday. On that day Mr. Hong didn’t mention the wording, saying only that healthy U.S.-China relations are “beneficial to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the world. Any U.S. party should objectively view China’s development and do more good things that will benefit China-U.S. cooperation and mutual trust with a responsible attitude.”

 

In the past, the U.S. has avoided using the word “adversary” when referring to China, despite disagreements on everything from territorial claims in the South China Sea to China’s regulations involving its exports of key minerals called rare earths. In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Asia Society that “some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary. To the contrary, we believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other’s successes.”

 

But China may now feel it enjoys a certain level of respect from the U.S. no matter what label it uses. “Maybe Obama might take a harder line on trade and the renminbi than he did in his first term, but it seems highly unlikely that there will be a trade war,” Mr. Shi said.

 


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