Obama is Playing Nice With China

It's not clear if the president's visit made progress on forging a partnership with Beijing.

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When President Obama visited China last week, he had a good case to make to his hosts that he was trying to see things their way. He'd recently declined a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington and said that he wanted a strategic partnership with China.

What did he get for his troubles? Other than a tantalizing but vague joint statement on climate change, it's not clear that Obama made any progress getting China's help on key issues like North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and the touchy question of the exchange rate for China's currency. Of course, the world wasn't privy to any conversations behind closed doors, and the fruits of the summit could be growing slowly.

With China holding $800 billion in U.S. treasury bonds and the U.S. position in the world badly damaged by war in Iraq, Obama is in no position to boss China around. Nevertheless, one of the key questions of Obama's foreign policy remains unanswered. Does his desire to engage with potential adversaries lead to reciprocal goodwill and cooperation, or is it a sign of weakness that will be exploited by Machiavellians in Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing?

Obama's accommodation to Chinese wishes continued while in Beijing. Take his public appearances. While the Americans would have preferred more freewheeling events, the forum with university students and the press conference were both tightly scripted. "Obama is being allowed less free interchange and access with Chinese society than his predecessors have been in the past," says James Mann, author of The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. "For all the talk about how China is getting more open . . . that's not how the Chinese regime behaves when an American leader comes."

A joint statement by the United States and China says that "each country and its people have the right to choose their own path, and all countries should respect each other's choice of a development model." Mann says this statement is more important to the Chinese government than anything Obama said in public because it is something of a vow to stay out of China's business.

Perhaps the most significant example of this, Mann says, was the Chinese government's arrest and detention of dozens of dissidents and activists before Obama's trip and the fact that no U.S. official said anything about it, at least publicly, in an apparent desire not to sour relations before the big visit. "The only reason they can be doing this is to show the United States and people in China that they can do it, that no one is going to stop them," Mann says.

The vow of noninterference is crucial, however, to getting China's cooperation on international issues like Iran and North Korea, says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She pointed to another clause in the joint statement, that "respecting each other's core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations." That also will please the Chinese. "But those core interests are not defined," she says. "And I think that is a problem going forward. We've agreed with each other not to undermine each other's core interests, but we haven't defined them." Now Obama and the Chinese have to do just that.