Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obama's Visit to China

U.S. president Barack Obama has begun his one week, four-country visit to Asia. That about half of that time will be spent in China is a measure of the importance of this bilateral relationship.

From the outset of his office, Obama dispensed with the customary China-bashing and immediately declared the need for a strong bilateral relation with China in order to tackle the many problems that confront the world, not least the economic downturn, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and counterterrorism.

The actions of his administration followed his rhetoric. His two Chinese American cabinet secretaries, Steven Chu (Energy) and Gary Locke (Commerce), were among the first high ranking officials to visit Beijing and began the dialogue on collaboration. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s first trip after taking office was to China, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also made an official visit and Treasury Secretary Tom Geithner has been to China more than once.

Obama’s actions have brought results. China’s premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea and came back to report that Pyongyang was ready to re-enter the six party talks, subject to the U.S. being willing to conduct direct bilateral discussions. In response the White House has announced the intention to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang. This is a refreshing change from the unilateral approach of the previous Bush administration.

Recently Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission visited the U.S. hosted by Secretary Gates. As part of his 11-day visit, Xu was taken to sensitive military sites including the Strategic Command Headquarter in a show of desire for closer cooperation. The result was seven points of consensus that will serve as a blueprint for closer military cooperation and exchanges.

Beijing has been making a fuss over recent remarks by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg relating to “strategic reassurance” between the parties as part of the road to closer partnership. China views this development as an elevation of the importance of the relationship. Zhou Wenzhong, China’s ambassador to Washington remarked that he has witnessed the bilateral tie evolving from one of frequent tensions to one of extensive cooperation.

In light of the warming bilateral relations, what can we expect out of Obama’s meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in Beijing? They certainly have a lot to talk about. China would love to hear Obama declare unequivocally that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China. Obama probably would ask for more assurances on arms control and non-proliferation and more military transparency and cooperation.

While both sides profess to be against protectionism, China would want Obama’s assurance that he would not yield to the domestic protectionist pressures despite his declarations to the contrary. Obama would like China to strengthen the value of the Renminbi against the dollar. China might ask about the granting market economy status which China has received from over 90 countries; the status lessens trade disputes.

The most likely agreement to come out of Beijing, I believe, is some kind of declaration on climate change that would allow both nations to attend the December climate summit in Copenhagen with some appearance of a united front.

Most specific agreements take many working level bilateral meetings to hammer out the details. Unless these meetings have already been taking place, more specific announcements are unlikely to come from Obama’s visit. The most would be agreement on a working framework that would allow negotiations to proceed. Indeed, declaration for a framework for closer cooperation was the result of an April meeting between Obama and Hu Jintao which led to the subsequent series of positive developments.

The young people in Shanghai are excited by Obama’s plan to begin his China visit with an open town hall Q&A with them in the audience. Obama has been accorded rock star appeal among the youth of China “because he embodies the personality and character of a leader to whom young people feel they can relate to as opposed to some stern-faced Chinese officials they have learned to dread”—a quote from one of the Chinese commentators.

Bill Clinton made his greatest impact on China when he visited China after his presidency. On national TV, he put his arms around a young man afflicted with AIDS. This image changed China’s attitude about AIDS victims and Wen Jiabao was later seen shaking hands with AIDS patients.

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Obama’s visit is to turn the stern faces of Chinese officials into friendlier demeanors. The Chinese people would remember Obama for a long time if that change is to come about.

See edited version of this commentary in New America Media.

No comments: