The following is an interview with Atlantic Council Associate Director Patrick deGategno.


Global Times: Barack Obama is the first US president to visit China in the first year of his term. High-level officials from both sides have interacted frequently in this year. Do you think it means that the US’ policy on China has changed?

DeGategno: No, overall President Obama has not fundamentally changed the American strategic policy of engaging China and building closer relations with China. What has changed is Obama also seeks to augment Bush’s strategy in significant ways. First, Obama deliberately avoided the election cycle paradigm of US-China relations into which Bush fell twice – that is, make US-China affairs a partisan issue for debate, start off the presidency with tense relations, and later necessarily adjust and reduce tension. China was not a subject for debate at all for Obama during the election. Second, Bush’s policy focused on shaping China’s behavior through policy formulations like expecting China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” meaning that China is a stakeholder in the existing world order and should act according to that order’s norms. China has never had a problem with the idea of being a global stakeholder, but who defines the responsibilities of such stakeholders? China expects that as its wealth and power increases it will have the chance to articulate those responsibilities. According to US officials, Obama will not present China with a mold into which it must try to fit itself. Rather, Obama wants to define a new paradigm with China. Third, Bush’s defense policy regarding China focused on hedging for the possibility of war with China in case the two sides antagonize each other in the future. Thus, Bush’s policy, though more successful than past presidents, remained fundamentally ambivalent towards China. Obama instead seeks a framework for relations in which both states can respond to global challenges coordinately without impeding each other’s national interests. Obama seeks to increase cooperation with China and other global partners in four areas: response to the global financial crisis, global non-proliferation, climate change, and international security threats like piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.

Global Times: Is it Obama’s expedient measures due to the financial crisis?

DeGategno:  No, Obama’s China policy does not reflect “expedient measures due to the financial crisis.” If you stop to consider the careers of the people in the Obama administration responsible for strategizing with the president and executing America’s policies in its relations with China, it becomes abundantly clear that the president’s strategy in US-China relations is focused on the goal of building a closer strategic partnership no matter what. In other words, Obama’s policy would likely be the same even if the financial crisis had not happened. It is true that the financial crisis has highlighted the importance of US-China relations in the global economy. But Obama and his top advisors have been strategizing and considering their policies regarding US relations with China for quite some time and very carefully. The president himself may be no American expert on China, but his senior advisors and numerous of his cabinet officials have worked on issues related to US-China relations for decades. Obama has in his employ, I think, the best possible people working on US-China relations. Many of these people have established careers as advocates for stronger, more pragmatic, and more cooperative relations with China. These advisors and officials work to strategize and execute US policy regarding US-China relations in an effort devoted to building mutual trust and finding ways for the two partners to cooperate realistically and constructively.

Global Times:  What does the US’s putting more importance on China stand for?

DeGategno:  Obama’s objective of elevating the partnership of US-China relations reflects a fundamental recognition among America’s top leadership of China as an increasingly important global actor. At the same time, as far as diplomatic efforts are concerned the president has dramatically increased US diplomatic efforts across the world. China is given special significance because of its relative size, its global economic importance, and the unique relationship the US has developed with China over the years. The relationship with China is also fundamentally a work in progress though. There is still a great deal that needs to be done to build better military-to-military relations. Building and transitioning to a low-carbon sustainable economy in both countries will take concerted efforts to cooperate and build understanding between the two sides’ energy and environmental policies and climate change mitigation efforts.

Global Times: What influence it will bring to China-India/ China-Russia/ China-Japan/ China-Australia/ China-South Korea/ China- Europe relations?

DeGategno:  The US focusing on China more so than in the past though, I don’t think so. If anything, the president and his administration are very eager to make sure no country in Asia feels its relationship with the US is neglected. This effort is reflected in the length of the president’s stay in each of the countries he will visit on his Asia trip this and next week. Though it is nobody’s but my own individual opinion, I think the order of the countries which Obama plans to visit reflects an effort to reassure friends and allies of the US in Asia that America’s relationship with China is one of many priority relationships.

Global Times: Will India/ Russia/ Japan/ South Korea/ Europe/ Australia adjust its foreign policy according to the development of the current Sino-US relationship? If so, what is the adjustment?

DeGategno:  There is no effort by the US to directly influence China’s relations with any particular country. However, I hope that if our closer relationship with China affects other countries’ relations with China, that these effects are positive and mean better, more constructive relationships between China and other countries will develop.

Global Times: Do you think Obama will stop selling weapons to Taiwan?

DeGategno:  Obama’s policy regarding Taiwan remains unchanged from previous presidents. If Obama stops selling weapons to Taiwan it will be because Taiwan stops demanding those weapons. Taiwan will not stop demanding those weapons until Taiwan feels it no longer needs American support for Taiwan’s security because Taiwan and China have reached a mutually agreed security arrangement. If China wants the US to stop selling arms to Taiwan, then it should work to expedite negotiations for security guarantees and arrangements between itself and Taiwan.

Global Times: The overall gap between China and the US is getting smaller…will the two countries have more strategic conflicts than strategic cooperation?

DeGategno:  I think the gap is getting smaller, but, as Chinese officials and experts are often quick to point out, China still has a significant uphill climb before it completes its industrialization project and finishes building a harmonious society. That aside, no, I do not think the two countries will have more strategic competition than cooperation. As China’s interests in the world increase so too will its stake in global leadership and international responses to strategic global challenges. The US wants China to have the chance to articulate its international responsibilities. As I said earlier, Obama seeks a framework for relations in which both states can respond to global challenges coordinately without impeding each other’s national interests. However, this ability of the two countries to work more closely together in the future will depend on reducing mutual distrust about each other’s long term intentions in the relationship. If this mistrust does not diminish over time, we may be able to continue to cooperate in some areas, but we will remain fundamentally unable to elevate the US-China relationship into a comprehensive strategic partnership. For now though as long as both countries remain sober about the limits of cooperation, we can work within those limits

Global Times: Many people are talking about a G2 between China and the US. What do you think of that? Would this be a good thing for the respective countries and the world?

DeGategno:  There’s no question the US and China share a unique relationship, but G2, an academic formulation, does not reflect the fundamental reality of US and Chinese interests and policies with regard to each other or their friends and allies. G2 implies the US and China would form a condominium of some sorts in which we agree to act together and independently, or at least in disregard to, each country’s global partners. China and the US cannot afford now or ever to focus on each other at the expense of global partners, and no global strategic challenge can be solved by the US and China alone. However, working together the US and China could potentially act as catalysts for generating multilateral strategic consensus on how to address issues such as developing clean energy, solving transnational security challenges, and addressing global healthcare.

Patrick deGategno is Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Asia Program. This interview first appeared on the web site of Global Times