Short on specifics, Obama′s China trip lays future groundwork | World | Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 18.11.2009

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Short on specifics, Obama's China trip lays future groundwork

US President Barack Obama has ended a visit to China that featured many statements of cooperation, but few concrete solutions to tough issues. Still, analysts say the trip set an important tone for Sino-US relations.

Obama and Chinese flag

US President Barack Obama wasn't going to solve tough bi-lateral issues in one visit, experts say

One might wonder what was actually accomplished during US President Obama's trip to the Middle Kingdom. When it came to the thorny issues facing the two countries - trade, currency valuation, global security, human rights and climate change - proclamations of good will dressed up in diplomatic finery seemed to be the primary outcome.

But those expecting that Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, would fire off a point-by-point action plan after their talks in Beijing were not being realistic, according to Bernt Berger, a China expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"It wasn't meant to be a trip where they would come to great achievements," he told Deutsche Welle. "Obama wanted to put the issues facing the two countries and the world on the agenda and set the tone for relations under his administration."

The differences on a variety of issues facing the world's largest and third-largest economies are too big to be solved overnight, he said.

Vague declarations

Take for instance the sticky issue of China's currency, the yuan, which the US administration has long complained is artificially set too low, which Washington says hurts American manufacturers.

Obama arrives in Beijing

Pledges of partnership and cooperation were many

Pressed on the topic by Obama, Hu publicly said only that "the two sides reiterated that they will continue to increase dialog and cooperation in macroeconomic and financial policies."

Not an exactly groundbreaking move.

On the human rights issue, Obama did address Tibet and the Dalai Lama, but did not press the issue, and during a town hall-like meeting with young people in Shanghai, the US leader called for an unshackling of the Internet.

But it appears that event was stacked by Chinese authorities with youths who toed the party line and was not broadcast nationwide.

"We will continue to act in the spirit of equality, mutual respect, and a non-interference in each other's internal affairs and engage in dialogue and exchanges on such issues as human rights … to enhance understanding," Hu said after talks with Obama.

But Washington has chosen not to dwell on the differences and Obama spokesman Robin Gibbs said the US president could not transform the political environment on his own.

And in fact, both countries did pledge to step up military and space cooperation, call for a resumption of talks with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program and promised to cooperate on the issue of Iran's own atomic ambitions.

"I did not expect that we thought the waters would part and everything would change over the course of our two-and-a-half-day trip to China," Gibbs told reporters.

USA China Obama Chinesische Mauer Flash-Format

Symbolic importance

China expert Berger said that Obama's first visit to China was primarily about getting the lay of the land, introducing himself to the government and the people (as much as was possible) and getting used to how things are done there.

"The goal was to go there and say 'this is me, this is how we're going to do it in the future," he said. "It was a very symbolic trip."

As the Bush administration's foreign policy focus for much of its two terms was focused almost exclusively on the Middle East, the Obama administration is showing with this visit to China, and his larger Asia trip, that the country and the region is a key strategic partner to the US.

Obama's policy priorities are not markedly different from those of the Bush administration, but Washington is ready to intensify the relationship.

"Obama has made it absolutely clear the US is ready to engage in cooperative solutions instead of conflicting solutions and is ready to listen to China as well," Sebastian Bersick of University College Cork told Deutsche Welle on the phone from Shanghai.

Global player

Listening to China is no longer just an option for the United States. China's economic might continues to grow (8.9 percent in the third quarter over a year ago), it is gaining new global influence through big investment outlays in Africa and elsewhere, holds $800 billion in US treasury bonds and is a crucial player is solving issues such as Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions as well as global warming.

"For China, it was able to play the high-profile host and demonstrate how important it has become on the global stage," said Bersick.

Obama, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao

Obama, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao

On the issue of tackling climate change, for which big polluters China and the US are key, Obama and Hu said they were eager to see real progress toward a successful outcome in Copenhagen, where international talks on greenhouse gas reductions will take place in December.

The two presidents said they had agreed on a "series of important new initiatives." Obama said the goal was not to have just a political declaration at the conference, but an accord that has "immediate operational effect."

So, while that statement appeared to have some teeth, it's one of the few that did. And experts are still pessimistic on the results in Denmark next month.

But Obama appears to be taking the long view regarding China, and while he cannot boast of any breakthroughs on this trip, he can say the paths to dialog are firmly open.

And it could take a lot of determined talking to encourage change in certain areas in China, according to Sebastian Bersick, who noted the manipulation by Chinese authorities of Obama's more informal-style town-hall meeting with students. While the US had hoped for a fairly open and frank exchange, China wanted something else.

"It's one thing for US president to come to China and communicate his country's own vision and values and another thing to find out that China simply doesn't want to listen," he said.

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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