Congressman Mark Kirk, Republican representative for Illinois, co-founded the bipartisan Congressional US-China Working Group with his Democrat counterpart Rick Larson in 2005. He spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW on the prospects for US-China relations in 2009.
Q: The final instalment of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) was held in December. Do you see these meetings as a success?
A: I think they achieved a great deal because China participated actively with a large number of US government ministers. I would urge the Obama administration to keep the SED. The US is very inward-looking right now, but if anything, China is even more important to the US than it was before President Bush took office.
Q: How would such a dialogue differ with Obama in office?
A: I would expect it to be renamed to give it an emotional connection to the Obama administration. One person who may emerge as a major player is Secretary-designate Bill Richardson at the Commerce Department. He already knows the Chinese and can be expected to take a leadership role on China issues.
Q: What do you make of President-elect Obama’s stance on China?
A: When President-elect Obama was in the senate, he announced he would form a Senate US-China Working Group with [Republican] Senator Norm Coleman. He then went off and ran for president, so the group was never set up, but he told me personally that these issues were important to him.
Q: Is there a danger that protectionist attitudes may re-emerge?
A: There will be no free trade legislation for as long as Democrats control the administration. Good relations with China are not at the core of Obama’s presidency, so there is a danger that to relieve pressure on other issues – such as health care reform – he would then not fight as hard against the anti-China movement. He will learn quickly that he needs China and must therefore decide whether diplomacy regarding North Korea is more important than a trade bill on the floor of the House. China’s influence is greater and greater the closer you get to the Oval Office
Q: Are there concerns that China will make inroads into America’s diplomatic advantage?
A: At the end of the Carter administration, people said the US was finished and its influence was going into a long decline. They said Japan would take over everything. Then came Ronald Reagan, the economic boom and difficult times in Japan – and all these predictions about the end of the US turned out to be wrong. Clearly China’s influence is growing and the US is caught up with its internal problems, but I don’t think we will lose ground. We are still China’s number one market. We need each other.