Obama's mission impossible with China
His challenge: form a working partnership with a resurgent nation that eschews international leadership.
Asian diplomats often say that just showing up is a large part of successful diplomacy. If so, President Obama has given US interests a strong boost with his eight-day trip across Asia, despite the "deliverables" – like a pledge from China to set specific limits on carbon emissions – that are missing from meetings with the region's leaders. Bringing his rhetorical skills and personal popularity to bear on the many issues that Washington faces on the Pacific's western rim, he has reassured allies and laid to rest some accumulated grievances.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet even Mr. Obama's charms have not resolved the conundrum that precipitates unease across Asia and the rest of the world: a resurgent China with an aversion to international leadership.
From climate change to sustainable global prosperity to regional security, China is the essential player, and courting its cooperation is the challenge. China may resist sharing the burden of global leadership, but economic interdependence still gives Washington and Beijing a shared destiny. As he heads home, Obama must consider how to transform that mutual dependence into a working partnership that promotes peace and prosperity for the entire Asian region.
In his keynote policy address in Tokyo over the weekend, Obama vowed strong ties with Asia that reflected his commitment "to renew American leadership and pursue a new era of engagement with the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect." His pledge to reinvigorate US-Japan relations seemed to impress even the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who has said he wants a more equal alliance and a review of this cornerstone security relationship that will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Yet Obama's diplomatic roadshow had to play catch-up with Chinese President Hu Jintao and his senior ministers, who travel routinely to neighboring states with a vigorous economic diplomacy that is paying strong dividends for the People's Republic of China.
President Hu, for instance, arrived in Singapore last week three days earlier than his US counterpart. He addressed a large audience of Southeast Asian business executives and wooed the China-friendly city-state into closer ties. He then joined Obama at the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, with leaders from 21 member economies.
Nearly everywhere Obama turned on his trip, China posed the largest uncertainties. "I know there are many who question how the United States perceives China's emergence," Obama acknowledged in Tokyo.
He then assured his audience that "in an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation – not competing spheres of influence – will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific." In a message to worried job seekers at home as well as the region, he asserted that "the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."