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With Obama gone, Trump in, US-China rivalry is set to intensify

With the legacy of President Barack Obama on US foreign policy soon to be a subject for historians, it is time to consider how US-China relations fared under his eight-year term.

Obama’s two four-year terms overlapped with the Chinese presidencies of Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ), who succeeded Hu in March 2003, just two months after Obama began his second term.

Generally speaking, Obama might have succeeded in maintaining the relatively stable and friendly working relationship between the two countries during his first term in office. However, relations became increasingly fragile during his second term.

At the beginning of Obama’s first term, the US and China embarked on a new level of collaboration. In his first visit to China as US president, in November 2009, Obama launched with Hu the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED), an expansion of the framework for economic cooperation between the countries that was initiated in 2006 by Hu and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

And since then, Beijing and Washington have maintained frequent high-level interactions to keep their relationship on track.

The momentum has been kept up under Xi, with the two leaders having met 11 times since 2013, on various occasions ranging from state visits to international conferences.

Obama and Xi marked a hopeful start by calling for a “new type of relations between major powers” and built a public image of a close personal relationship with high-profile summits in Sunnylands, California, and Yingtai walk, Zhongnanhai.

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The most prominent achievement of the Obama-Xi relationship was their agreement, on the sidelines of September’s G20 summit in Hangzhou (杭州), to jointly ratify the 2015 Paris climate change pact.

However, the Obama-Xi era ends with doubt and uncertainty lingering in the air across the Pacific, with suspicion and mistrust growing from two areas – geopolitics and security.

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China’s fast rising status economically, politically and militarily, and its increasingly assertive foreign policy and military projection in the region amid its territorial disputes with neighbours in the South and East China seas have raised Washington’s suspicions.

Washington sees China as the chief threat to the Western-dominated post-cold war order, taking as evidence the revival of Mao-era political suppression and anti-Western attitudes in foreign policy under Xi’s rein.

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Beijing sees Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy as an effort to contain China’s rise. And it sees Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact involving the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries, as an effort to check China’s rising economic influence.

Leaders’ personalities and ideological leanings, the domestic concerns of their home countries and changes in the economic and geopolitical landscapes often affect diplomatic relations between countries.

And it is the dramatic changes in such factors over recent years that are behind what academics term a “trust deficit” between the world’s leading free democracy and the last major communist-ruled nation.

As a result, US attitudes to China, and Chinese attitudes to the US, have hardened across the political spectrum in recent years.

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So Donald Trump, the US president-elect, and Xi, as leaders of the world’s two largest and increasingly intertwined economies and most influential nations, will have to work through their differing political systems, ideology and strategic objectives to find a way for peaceful coexistence.

The stage is already set for the countries’ political and strategic rivalry to intensify.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s