Tuesday, December 01, 2009

President Obama's trip to China -- what still hasn't been said

Guest post by Michael S. Chase 

Michael S. Chase is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and an Assistant Professor at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense. 

Ed. note: While it has been some time since Obama's trip to the Far East, this piece, Michael's first guest spot here at The Reaction, provides a valuable look at some of the key issues facing U.S.-China relations, including climate change and regional security, as well as at where those relations may go from here. -- MJWS


In the two weeks since President Obama's return from his first official visit to China – it does feel like an eternity already – there has been no shortage of reasoned analysis and speculative naval gazing about the meaning of the presidential journey. Journalists, politicians, and bloggers across the political spectrum have debated issues ranging from currency exchange rates to human rights, while Saturday Night Live weighed in by offering a comedic interpretation of how leaders in Beijing might feel about the economic relationship between China and the United States.

Yet in spite of all this talking there's a lot that still hasn't been said. Although the consequences are still coming into focus, President Obama's visit highlighted the changes that are reshaping the U.S.-China relationship. Indeed, the China trip came at a time that could be considered the beginning of a new stage in the history of the U.S.-China relations, one replete with opportunities for cooperation, as well as a number of challenges associated with China's emergence as a major power.

The wide range of topics discussed during President Obama's trip to China underscored the increasing complexity and diversity of the U.S.-China relationship. Compared to past meetings of U.S. and Chinese leaders, President Obama's China visit reflected a much broader agenda. One of the most contentious issues over the past fifty years – Taiwan – seemed noticeably less central, highlighting the extent to which cross-Strait relations have improved since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president last year.

The issue of human rights also appeared to figure less prominently than in the past, although President Obama's answer to a question about Internet censorship in China provided a powerful reminder that the free flow of information is an indispensable pillar of accountable and responsive government. President Obama's response, which emphasized that the freedom to criticize "makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear," undoubtedly resonated with millions of Chinese citizens.

The trip also underscored the notion that the major challenges facing individual nations are, in reality, global challenges that can only be solved through international cooperation. As President Obama said during his joint press statement with President Hu Jintao, "The major challenges of the 21st century... are challenges that touch both our nations, and challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone." Among the most prominent of the major challenges were economic recovery, climate change, and regional security.

Promoting sustainable growth and economic recovery was clearly one of the top items discussed, reflecting China's growing role in the global economy and the need for U.S.-China coordination in responding to the global financial crisis. Another hot-button topic was global warming and the need for clean energy. The U.S. and China agreed that efforts to combat climate change should include "emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries." They also announced a number of other energy agreements, including the establishment of a joint clean energy research center.

Regional security challenges – including the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues and efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan – were of course high on the agenda. But perhaps more interesting was the U.S.-China Joint Statement, which addressed a wide range of issues beyond the core challenges of economic recovery, energy, and regional security. Among the many issues highlighted: cooperation in counter-terrorism, law enforcement, civil aviation, transportation infrastructure, space science, agriculture, public health, military-to-military relations, human rights, and cultural and educational exchanges.

Officials from both sides will undoubtedly seek further progress on many of these issues between now and President Hu Jintao's planned visit to the United States next year. The prospects for cooperation in many of these areas are good, but several deeper challenges are likely to remain on the table for many years to come as the United States seeks to develop a "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive" relationship with China.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the two sides still face a need to build strategic trust in order to avoid misunderstanding or miscalculation. The United States expects China to assume a level of responsibility commensurate with its growing power and influence, but many in the United States are concerned about the uncertainty surrounding how a more powerful and confident China will behave on the world stage.

For China's part, despite assurances that the United States welcomes a stable and prosperous China, many in China suspect that the United States seeks to delay or frustrate China's emergence as a great power. Consequently, much hard work will be required to maximize the opportunities for cooperation in areas where U.S. and Chinese interests converge, and to handle the challenges that reside in areas of continued disagreement.

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