Chimerica: Obama visits Beijing

Barack Obama’s achievement has been to improve the United States-China relationship while unsettling China’s elite by offering it co-superpower status. North Korea is a test of Beijing’s resulting dilemma, says Kerry Brown.
Kerry Brown
27 October 2009

Any visit by a United States president to the People’s Republic of China is a big event. This is certainly true of Barack Obama’s forthcoming trip, part of a week-long, four-nation tour (including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea) on 12-19 November 2009 - and Obama’s first overseas trip since being awarded the Nobel peace prize.

China is preparing hard for its latest presidential visitor. Whatever underlying tensions and policy differences there might be, a constant feature of Chinese diplomatic behaviour is that when faced with the big guys in their midst its elite knows how to deploy the extravagant host’s skills of ceremony and flattery.

Bill Clinton irritated China greatly during his presidency, and insisted on speaking about human rights when he visited in 1998 (the first post-Tiananmen trip); none of this prevented him from being lavishly received. George W Bush’s arrival in Beijing for the first of his two 2002 visits was eerie; I recall having to take massive detours in order to drive a short distance home, so many and huge were the roadblocks erected to protect the world’s most powerful man.

Barack Obama will be guaranteed equal levels of security, even though he will be far safer in China than he is at home. After all, he receives four times the number of death-threats than Bush did - and that’s only the ones we know about. If he is history’s most protected man it is for good reason. The ferocity of the bile and spleen directed against him by sections of the American right is dizzying.

But in China, the purpose of the huge security-cordon around him will be more a ritual of honour and admiration than a fearful response to any threat. The Chinese might not know much about him, but it is clear they are both intrigued and impressed by the first African-American president. Moreover, the relationship between Obama and his counterpart Hu Jintao has started more positively than any such among their predecessors; the contrast is notably sharp with the more direct and tactile Jiang Zemin, who for all his famous chemistry with leaders like Clinton and Bush (and Jacques Chirac) became embroiled in numerous spats and ended up achieving little.

The stiff, even somewhat robotic President Hu (the world’s second most powerful man) seems to be enjoying something close to a a warm relationship with Obama. At London’s G20 summit on 2 April 2009 they were reported to have got on well. Perhaps the key lies in a shared element in their background. Those who have met Hu often say that he comes across more like an academic than the leader of the world’s most ruthless political machine, and Obama too is a cerebral, scholarly kind of politician. The fact that these two powerful leaders are academics may be a lesson in the hidden depths of an underestimated profession. Whether the bond will lead to measurable political progress remains to be seen.

An unsettling effect

The current harmony between Beijing and Washington is a striking departure from the days when every issue became a dispute shadowed by the ominous language of “containment”. Now,  the European Union has replaced the United States as China’s target: a hectoring, uncooperative and multilayered interlocutor that constantly reproaches  it on subjects it doesn’t want to hear about. The bitter feelings towards the EU have grown since 2007, in part out of the union’s refusal - heavily influenced by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, its two most powerful national figures - to grant China market status. The criticisms of China’s policy over Tibet have also played a part. China has despite this become the EU’s largest trade partner; but the sour mood makes the EU-China summit in Nanjing on 30 November 2009 an important event where some of this damage could be on view.

The contrast in sentiment became clearer to me in Beijing in August 2009, when a Chinese university teacher turned from expressing a barely disguised disgust over the EU’s “tone of moral superiority” towards China to declaring that the US had “got China right and approached issues with the proper manner”. The pattern was echoed a few weeks later at a meeting in London, when a very senior Chinese leader warned that “the EU needs to be less complacent and arrogant” while praising the US as “always so flexible” and predicting that it will “continue to be the world’s only superpower”.

After years of hearing the US denounced in China for its disrespectful tone, all this comes as a surprise. In its way it is another tribute to Barack Obama’s political and communications skills (albeit the US president has been on the receiving end of severe criticism about his lack of actual achievement so far); even more so in the sense that the US president’s approach has done more than won a certain respect from the Chinese - it has also unsettled them, and at all levels.

How has this happened? Obama’s instinct to reach out and attempt to work with China - in a variety of areas, from climate change to energy, global security to the international economy - may be a necessity from Washington’s perspective; but it has also had the effect of creating divisions among the Chinese political and economic elite.

For some members of this elite, the forcing of China (even by the use of “soft power”) into a position where it becomes in effect a co-superpower is no more than an elaborate trick that preys on China’s vulnerabilities; the process will end, they argue, by destabilising and weakening the country. For example, if China is dragged into accepting international commitments far beyond its borders - and in areas beyond its understanding or interest - the result will be to divide the country. Instead, China must continue to work on building up its own capacity and strengthening itself. 

For others, the main point of concern is timing. Even if the US is sincere in seeing China as a partner, almost an equal one, this whole process is happening too quickly. The homeland, they argue, is having to run hard merely to cope with myriad internal problems, and cannot prematurely become a world power or operate abroad without serious risks.

Among both sides, there is a clear and honest admission that China is simply not ready for the role that Barack Obama’s administration appears to want to assign to it. The increasing demands for China to get involved, even when met by a well-intentioned response, are starting to worry Chinese policy-makers. They are the ones who know best just how immense are the political, economic and social challenges facing China in the coming decade.

The Pyongyang window

Behind this division is a shared reluctance to assume too many or too onerous “global” responsibilities, a reality very different from the routine picture of China as a confident and voracious rising power. The implication is that it is Washington that will have to continue to set the pace in most critical foreign-policy regions; where Afghanistan, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are concerned, China will continue to concede US leadership and seek to avoid entanglement.

There is one crucial area, however, that China can’t avoid: the international community’s dealings with North Korea (the DPRK). Here Obama can, and should, press China to do more. Kim Jong-Il’s mercurial regime is in one of its less provocative phases, but a return to its usual mix of escalating rhetoric and missile-tests is almost certain. China has influence in North Korea, whether or not it accepts this, and it could do more to persuade the Pyongyang regime - politically, economically and diplomatically - to negotiate, and to move towards constructive agreement on real goals.

The most important of these must be an immediate cessation of its nuclear programme. The DPRK’s nuclear capacity at present is still weak, and China has an opportunity to take a leading role by using the lever of its aid, economic-cooperation and energy-supply links with the country to achieve a historic shift in the DPRK’s stance.

The window could close, and in a way that would change all calculations. If in future North Korea launched a direct missile at Japan, or even South Korea, the warm atmospherics and kind words between the US and China would mean nothing. Better that Barack Obama and Hu Jintao anticipate and avert disaster than find they are woken in the middle of the night with the news that this time, something bad has happened. There is a time for bold leadership as well as proper caution, and Beijing in November 2009 is one of those.


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