Vanity Fair has made available online a fascinating oral history of the George W. Bush White House. Hidden deep within the 14-page opus is this comment from Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN:
The Chinese never said so, because they are the best geopolitical strategists in the world, but it was immediately obvious that with 9/11 the U.S.-China relationship improved. The Chinese were smart. They didn’t put any real obstacles in the way of action in Afghanistan, and even if they strongly opposed the war in Iraq, they did so in a way that minimized the difficulties for the U.S. I saw that firsthand, in the period after the invasion was over, when the U.S. needed a Security Council resolution to get the oil sales flowing again. They got the resolution, and I remember asking a U.S. diplomat which country had been most helpful in getting the resolution passed. China, he replied. That 2003 resolution was a double win for the Chinese leaders: they obtained valuable political goodwill from the Bush administration, which translated into gains on the Taiwan issues, and they helped to ensure that American troops would remain bogged down in Iraq for a long time.
The Chinese have been brilliant in playing the Bush years. Asia is one part of the world where many will see George Bush in a positive light, although not necessarily for the reasons he may have wished.
There is an obvious question here (and one that has been asked many times before) about what kind of US-China relationship we can expect from the Obama administration. A more interesting question might be how much freedom each side will have to act, even if the political desire exists. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest a turning inward on both sides of the Pacific. Will the benefits of close ties outweigh domestic skepticism?