Obama’s Agenda For China

President Obama leaves Thursday for his Asia trip. From Forbes:

Despite all the airport hopping, the trip will largely be about China-U.S. relations, which have been tepid as of late. White House official say the talks in China will focus on the global economic recovery, climate change, energy and regional security.

Don’t forget tires, jobs and money. Two months ago, Washington and Beijing had a flare-up when the Obama administration slapped a 35% tariff on Chinese tire imports.

The U.S. paper industry has also cried foul on Beijing. China has responded to the treatment with its own tariffs on U.S. nylon imports. It’s considering taking somewhat symbolic action on U.S. auto imports. (See “The Trouble With China’s Trade Retaliation”)

Many experts agree that the trade spat is more smoke than fire, but feathers on both sides of the Pacific have been ruffled.

Reuters interviewed Obama in advance of the trip:

QUESTION: You’ve described China as a partner of opportunity, not necessity. Reuters and Ipsos actually took a poll last week, and …

OBAMA: I saw it in your article.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, we found that Americans place a high importance on the relationship but tend to view Beijing as more of an adversary than a friend. And I’m wondering, do you see China as a rival or do you see it as an ally?

OBAMA: Well, I see China as a vital partner, as well as a competitor. The key is for us to make sure that that competition is friendly, and it’s competition for customers and markets, it’s within the bounds of well-defined international rules of the road that both China and the United States are party to, but also that together we are encouraging responsible behavior around the world. And on critical issues, whether climate change, economic recovery, nuclear non-proliferation, it’s very hard to see how we succeed or China succeeds in our respective goals without working together. And that is, I think, the purpose of the strategic partnership and that’s why this trip to China is going to be so important.

The Financial Times writes:

“…No amount of dexterity can disguise the fact that Mr Obama’s visit to China crystallises a big shift in the global centre of gravity over the past few years. Just a decade ago Bill Clinton persuaded Capitol Hill that China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation would strengthen the forces of democracy within China.

Today, almost nobody in Washington even tries to make that case. Subsequent developments in China – and elsewhere – make it hard to sustain the argument that economic liberalisation leads necessarily to political liberty. More importantly, the US no longer has the luxury of being able to play teacher to China’s student (not that China ever took instruction).

See also “U.S. Lowers Goals for Asia Trip” from the Wall Street Journal blog. Also, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal write about Obama’s policy of “strategic reassurance” toward China:

India is engaged in strategic competition with China, especially in the Indian Ocean, which both see as their sphere of influence. Japan’s government wants to improve relations with Beijing, but many in Japan fear an increasingly hegemonic China. The nations of Southeast Asia do business with China but look to the United States for strategic support against their giant neighbor.

For decades, U.S. strategy toward China has had two complementary elements. The first was to bring China into the “family of nations” through engagement. The second was to make sure China did not become too dominant, through balancing. The Clinton administration pushed for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and normalized trade but also strengthened the U.S. military alliance with Japan. The Bush administration fostered close economic ties and improved strategic cooperation with China. But the United States also forged a strategic partnership with India and enhanced its relations with Japan, Singapore and Vietnam. The strategy has been to give China a greater stake in peace, while maintaining a balance of power in the region favorable to democratic allies and American interests.

“Strategic reassurance” seems to chart a different course. Senior officials liken the policy to the British accommodation of a rising United States at the end of the 19th century, which entailed ceding the Western Hemisphere to American hegemony. Lingering behind this concept is an assumption of America’s inevitable decline.

Yet nothing would do more to hasten decline than to follow this path.

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