January 21, 2013 was a day of ritual and celebration for the United States. Every country on the planet surrounds a leadership change with pomp and circumstance, but no country on earth goes as big as the United States when it swears in a new president. Inauguration Day in the United States is a time where Americans bask in the glory of our ability to peacefully transfer power to one leader to the next, all while seeking to reintroduce our country to the rest of the globe.
The Inaugural Address performed yesterday by President Obama was his second introduction to the world. The speech was not overtly about foreign policy, but it does have one key section designed to show the world that the President intends on leading not by force, but rather cooperation.
“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice” (President Barack Obama, 2013).
President Obama’s address was watched closely in Beijing (just as in every other capital on the planet). Opinions in Beijing are important, for there is no bilateral relationship that will define the world in 21st century as much as that between Washington and Beijing, and China has grown increasingly apprehensive regarding US actions in the Asia-Pacific. The rebalance towards Asia, the logical result of the realization that the US has been bogged down for too long in West Asia, did not play out as expected for the President and his foreign policy team. China’s growth made it more willing to show its strength to those in the Asia-Pacific, increasing regional tensions. The rebalance occurred just as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan were all beginning to conflict with Chinese interests. Thus, the rebalance is viewed in Beijing as an US effort to surround China – a strategic effort to box them in.
The Second Inaugural provides an opportunity to reboot the relationship by emphasizing the ways in which the US-China relationship has grown, while working to ease the problems created by stumbles within both countries. China, like the US, has a new leader. Xi Jinping is the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party and is soon to take formal control over the government by becoming the President of the People’s Republic. Like President Obama, Xi has presented himself as the right leader for a new era – someone intent on leading China to grand new heights. These two men may find much common ground on which to build a stronger relationship. The only thing that is needed is hard work and investment in improving bilateral ties.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.