Obama to China
George W. Bush’s administration started off badly on Sino-American relations with the 2001 spy-plane crisis (often eclipsed in the collective mind by the major incident that occurred in Manhattan and Washington DC seven months later). I agree with Evan Osnos’ piece in the New Yorker, in which he argues that Obama should make a diplomatic visit to China as soon as possible:
Breaking News: Obama To Visit Canada Feb. 19th. President Obama is following tradition in agreeing that his first foreign visit will be to our friends to the North. That comforts the Canadians, but he should schedule a trip to China before too long. By my tally—and corrections are welcome—Obama has never set foot in China, and each passing day adds another reason for his first China visit to be a top priority.
1) The Australians are making us look bad. It is, perhaps, ambitious to ask Obama to learn Chinese, but Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decent Mandarin has set a formidable standard for heads of state. Kenneth Tan at the Shanghaiistrecently highlighted Rudd’s videotaped New Year’s greeting, which is worth a look. Gestures matter to the Chinese leadership at least as much as they do to Canadians, and while a videotaped tribute might be over the top, he could repair any early mayhemcaused by the focus on currency manipulation.
2) The Chinese people are watching. This is not just about the leadership. As Ariana Eunjung Cha writes in the Washington Postthis week, the pro-democracy petition known as Charter 08 has been circulating among a widening pool of ordinary Chinese, despite official efforts to shut it down. If it ultimately fails to bring lasting change, it will not be for lack of boldness. As Roland Soong astutely put it, “Charter 08 was dead on arrival on account of George W. Bush.” Eight years of damage to the brand-image of democracy means that Obama has an opportunity to restore the reputation of the values he represents. The Chinese people are listening.
3) Keep your creditors confident. Brad W. Setser and Arpana Pandey at CFR have come out with a sobering new estimate of the size of China’s U.S. portfolio. They estimate China’s dollar-denominated foreign portfolio at $1.7 trillion—more than thirteen-hundred dollars for every Chinese man, woman and child—which is larger than the numbers reported by the U.S. Treasury, because, the authors discovered, Treasury’s data tends to understate recent Chinese purchases.
A visit might have to wait until a new ambassador is appointed to fill what Fareed Zakaria calls the “toughest and most crucial assignment” in the American foreign service. But Obama need not worry about offending allies. As Yale’s Jeffrey Garten argues, Obama can avoid rattling the Japanese or the Indonesians by bundling his China visit with stops at other destinations in the region. “The biggest point is that even as Obama battles the economic urgencies of the moment, even as he wrestles with the problems of the Middle East and South Asia, he should show that he understands the future trajectory of America,” Garten says. “All roads will eventually lead to Beijing.” Obama is a keen-eyed traveller, and even a visit as circumscribed as a Presidential trip will reveal to him nuances of a country that never looks as monolithic as it does from Washington.
While Bush attempted to mend wounded relations with our largest trading partner during his second term, Obama would be wise to create a good impression first. He should also be unapologetic in pushing for democratic reforms in China.