How Obama Tried and Failed to Make Friends with China

Don't expect much from the upcoming summit -- we've been down this road before.


It all seemed so promising. In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen to try to reach an agreement on a legally binding treaty for climate change. The sheer force of Obama’s charisma and drive — he had made climate change a top priority — coupled with the momentum in the United States and the developed world, made a positive outcome likely: if only he could convince China, the world’s biggest polluter, to cut its emissions.

But the summit was a disaster, as the Chinese made it clear that they would not yield. Despite a burst of eleventh-hour diplomacy, personally negotiated by Obama, the final agreement fell far short of creating a new global consensus on stopping global warming. "I think they had high expectations their first year of all the things they could do with China," says the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. "Then, starting with climate change, the disappointments followed one after the other."

On June 7 and June 8, Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in California. China watchers in Washington don’t expect much in the way of concrete "deliverables": an agreement to curtail hacking, for instance, or for the U.S. to scale back its "rebalancing" to Asia, a policy that has greatly angered the Chinese. Gone are the days when China would support a U.S. position "while turning its back on its own previously held view," says Roy Kamphausen, a former China hand at the Pentagon.

Xi, meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in preparation for the summit, told his guest that it’s time to explore "a new type of great power relationship." What that means is up for debate, but perhaps it’s best described as a partnership of equals, with no one side able to effect change on the other without an equally weighty concession. "Yes, both sides have given ground," Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s nationalist tabloid the Global Times, said in a phone interview. "And they are both acting with great restraint."

The Copenhagen summit happened as the world was waking up to the fact that China was the great winner of the 2008 financial crisis, emerging with its economy mostly intact. Projections of when China would overtake the United States economically began appearing in greater frequency, and Chinese diplomats began shedding the conservatism and relative timidity that characterized most of the reign of Hu Jintao, China’s paramount leader until November 2012. That’s the point, notes Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, when most U.S. national security elites woke up to the fact that China could be a problem.

Most of the political gains the United States achieved in Asia since 2009 happened in spite of China, not because of it. The liberalization of Burma and the warming of U.S.-Burma ties, for example, happened in part because of its government’s fear of Chinese encroachment. The United States owes its improving relationships with South Korea, Japan, and a host of smaller Asian nations in part to their worries about China’s rise. And China’s inability to rein in North Korea has tightened the bond between the United States and South Korea, and the United States and Japan.

Cha, an expert on North Korea, believes that the Obama administration’s biggest success in handling Pyongyang was "conveying credibly to the Chinese that North Korean provocations are going to elicit a South Korean response" — and more broadly, that China’s actions are alienating its neighbors. (Separately, Japanese officials have mentioned that North Korea is a great excuse for their military buildup, a fact of which Beijing is likely well aware.)

Even those benefits might recede as the State Department returns to its traditional focus on the Middle East. Many of the people I spoke to for this article credited former Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton and her assertive assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, for their outreach to Asia. Since taking office in February, John Kerry has already visited the Middle East four times — and East Asia once. "I don’t think Kerry’s going to wake up to this part of the world. All new secretaries want to differentiate from past ones," said Blumenthal, who added, "The Chinese will be quite candid in saying that they’re glad Secretary Clinton is gone, and they believe that’s good for Chinese national interests — but that could be a bad thing for U.S. interests." (In one possible sign of drift, the Senate has yet to confirm Campbell’s replacement, Danny Russel, who wasn’t appointed to the post until May.)

Business ties between China and the United States, which is less of a zero-sum game, are undoubtedly rosier. By the end of 2013, the United States might replace the European Union as China’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade projected to reach $450 billion, Wei Jianguo, former vice-minister of commerce, recently told the Chinese newspaper China Daily. "We’ve had a few trade successes in the last year, for example when China agreed to open its market to more U.S. movies in February 2012 as well as the United States prevailing over an important WTO case involving steel," said a U.S. official familiar with the planning for the upcoming Obama-Xi meeting, who asked to speak off the record.

Still, those are small gains — Chinese state-sponsored hacking of U.S. businesses and institutions, including the theft of the designs for dozens of the United States’ most sensitive advanced weapon systems, remains a huge concern, and other big-picture trade issues involving the Chinese, such as the slow and steady appreciation of China’s currency, were largely resolved multilaterally. Since Obama took office, China’s currency gained roughly 10 percent in value, and in May it reached a record high of 6.1537 RMB to the dollar. Arvind Subramanian, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and author of a 2011 book on China’s economic dominance, thinks that the RMB has appreciated due to a combination of internal and external factors — its stated goal of shifting away from exports, for one, and the perception in other developing countries like India, Brazil, and Mexico that China wasn’t playing by the rules. "The U.S. can perhaps take some credit for contributing to this general ‘China is an outlier’ narrative," he says. "But it couldn’t use its hard power to change Chinese actions."

Hu, the tabloid editor and well-known Chinese commentator, cites China’s RMB appreciation as an example of a time when China considered U.S. interests. "China definitely thinks of American feelings," he said in a phone interview. "Like hacking — there actually is pressure against hacking," he said. Even though it might not be publicized, "they are cracking down." In response, the United States has not engaged policies "that China won’t be able to accept."

And now, both Obama and Xi seem to have the mandate to make changes in the relationship. "I would say the political transitions of both countries in 2012 kept us from
other big movements but we’re getting better at playing long ball with them," said the U.S. official. "I think cybersecurity and U.S. rebalancing are the issues that will dominate moving forward."

But that doesn’t mean anything will be resolved this weekend. Says Cha, "We have plenty of things where we want nine yards, and we don’t get that — we get four yards, if we’re lucky."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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