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Obama goes to China

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In Brief

No relationship in the world is more important than the US-China relationship. None is changing faster. And none is less clear in its long-term trajectory.

So it’s a strange and telling fact that Barack Obama has so far said nothing substantive about it, either as candidate or President. That makes this weekend’s visit to China an important event


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– without doubt the most important of his Asian trip. If he takes this opportunity to articulate a coherent, sustainable, realistic American approach to China’s growing power, then he will have done a great service to his country and the world – perhaps the most important he can offer. If he misses this opportunity, we can probably conclude that this President, for all his charisma, has no more intention then the last bloke of addressing the biggest challenge America has faced to its place in the world since the Cold War, and perhaps even since 1945.

My betting is that he will miss it. So far what little his Administration has said about China has followed the tradition set by his predecessor. Like Bush, Obama has left it to a Deputy Secretary of State to articulate America’s vision of the relationship. Like Bush’s Bob Zeollick, Obama’s Jim Steinberg tried to capture the future US-China relationship in two words. Zeollick’s phrase was ‘responsible stakeholder’. Steinberg’s is ‘strategic reassurance’. Both phrases reveal not an attempt to address the issues raised by China’s growing power, but a wish to evade them. ‘Responsible stakeholder’ embodies the hope that China’s role in the world can be defined by, and limited to, its participation in the global order led by the United States. It says nothing about how that role will reflect the extraordinary growth in China’s power, and the likely scale of that power in decades to come, and how US leadership will adapt. It says nothing about how China’s power will make a difference to its role, because every state is or should be a ‘responsible stakeholder’. It expresses the improbable wish that China will just become one of the crowd.

Jim Steinberg’s ‘strategic reassurance’, presented in a speech on 24 September this year, is no better. The concept rests, he said, on a ‘tacit bargain’ the US is ‘prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival’ but ‘China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others.’ This precisely evades the two core questions.

First, what kind of conduct would he consider to be contrary to others’ security and well-being? If he means merely conduct contrary to the UN Charter, then everyone could agree, including China. But if he means any action that challenges US primacy in Asia in favour of a stronger Chinese role, then we are in very difficult territory indeed. In that case the tacit bargain is that China must accept US primacy indefinitely, as if its economy grows to equal America’s. Will China accept that bargain?

Second, what exactly does America do if China does not? Twenty years ago America and others could threaten to isolate China if we did not like how it acted. Does anyone believe that we would do that today, knowing what it would mean for the global economy? So what exactly does Steinberg and his boss have in mind?

The US – and broader Western – debate about China which is typified by these Deputy Secretaries’ phrase-making fails to come to grips with the stark political and strategic implications of China’s economic growth. People some how expect that we can all benefit from China’s remarkable growth to the front ranks of the global economy – as we have – and yet continue to regard China as at best a candidate for acceptance into the global community. The Economist this week bracketed Hu Jintao along with Mugabe, Chavez, Ahmedinejad and Castro, as leaders who might, indeed should, one day follow Honecker and Ceausescu onto the scrapheap of history, as if China is a failed dictatorship or a rogue state. How absurd. This country, for all its very real faults, has engineered the largest increase in human material welfare in history, and helped create the longest period of peace Asia has ever seen. And it has a fair chance of being the richest country in the world in a few decades.

Against domestic opinion in the US shaped by this kind of thinking, Obama’s visit to Beijing will most likely be judged by how forthrightly he presses his hosts on human rights. If he allows his agenda to be circumscribed in this way he will have missed a great opportunity. To grab it he should start talking, privately and publically, about how the US and China can work together – with Japan and eventually India – to build a new Asian order that recognises and accommodates and respects the reality of Chinese power.

Of course this won’t play well at home. But does that mean it can’t be done? Once before, when China was much weaker than it is today, an American President went to China to abandon old policy precepts and build a durable new order in Asia. We are all his beneficiaries. As Obama lands Beijing, the question is whether he has as much courage, intelligence and leadership as Richard Nixon.

3 responses to “Obama goes to China”

  1. China may become the world’s largest economy soon, but it will not be a rich economy for a long time.
    The challenge of adjusting to China’s growing influence will last much longer – it has just begun.

  2. Given that Obama has said a great deal about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, both as candidate and as President, and yet has achieved practically nothing, it may have been to his advantage that he said little about China before his visit. The Zoellick and Steinberg phrases do seem grossly inadequate and anachronistic, however, as Hugh White says, in capturing the likely future evolution of the Sino-American relationship. How does one offer, or deny, legitimacy and acceptance to a country that is already one’s principal foreign creditor? It is this aspect of the relationship that may be unprecedented.

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