America and China: Pleased to meet you

Published on The Economist, Nov 16th 2009.

MUTUAL suspicion and mutual attraction are powerful and competing forces in the relationship between China and America. President Barack Obama hopes his first visit to China, which began on Sunday November 15th, will enable the two countries to work more closely on global problems, from climate change to the economy. His hosts appear to agree, but misgivings are still abundant … //

… In his answers to politely put questions from an audience carefully selected by Chinese officials, Mr Obama avoided direct criticism of China’s government. He spoke at some length about the merits of internet freedom and spoke of how the internet could change China’s “status quo”. But he made no mention of China’s denial since July of internet access to millions of its citizens in the strife-torn far western region of Xinjiang.   

Mr Obama’s comments on human rights focused more on how America had benefitted from respecting them (albeit imperfectly) than China had suffered from violating them. He said freedom of expression, worship, access to information and of religion were “universal rights” that should be available to everyone “whether they are in the United States, China or any nation.”

In Beijing, where he is set to meet Chinese leaders and tour historical sites, Mr Obama is likely to be just as cautious. Although there is little expectation now of a detailed global agreement on climate change at a UN conference in Copenhagen in December, Mr Obama is still eager to present a more united front with China on the issue of global warming. Signs that China is taking the problem seriously could help him to get climate-change legislation through Congress. Mr Obama also wants to cool tensions over trade. China has been accusing America of imposing protectionist tariffs on some of its products, while many American politicians are resentful of what they see as Chinese efforts to boost exports by manipulating its currency. The president will probably avoid repeating such accusations in public.

Mr Obama’s central message is that China should not view America as a threat, no matter what its grievances over American policy toward Taiwan, Tibet or human rights. Mr Obama told the audience in Shanghai that America did not want to contain China’s rise, nor impose any particular system of government on it. He avoided, however, saying how he would handle America’s arms sales to Taiwan, a critical point of contention that—however much America may wish otherwise—China is not ready to ignore. (full text).

Comments are closed.