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US eyes China as global partner

Obama’s first visit to China will test that nation’s readiness to look outward – and past disagreements.

By Peter Ford / staff writer / November 15, 2009

President Barack Obama steps out from Air Force One at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, Sunday.

Nir Elias/Reuters



As President Obama surveys the range of global problems that his administration is called on to grapple with, he is searching for someone to give him a hand.

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His eye is on the new kid on the international block: China. But like an awkward teenager confused by his rapid development, Beijing is fidgety, uncomfortable with Washington's unaccustomed attention.

As Mr. Obama arrived in China Sunday evening for a three-day visit,“the big issue will be the degree to which China gets fully engaged as a global partner and actor,” says David Shambaugh, who heads the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “So far, they have been reticent.”

China's leaders "are not ready to take that kind of responsibility," says Jin Canrong, deputy head of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. "They feel a little nervous. It is too early."

Obama's talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders mark the first time a US leader's visit will focus not on narrow bilateral issues but on global themes such as climate change, recession, and nuclear nonproliferation.

The importance that the US president attaches to cooperation on such a grand stage is evident. "The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century," Obama said in July. That "makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world," he added.

But on key issues, the two countries are on opposing sides.

Washington, for example, has long called on Beijing to set itself firm and binding targets to limit China's CO2 emissions, now the largest in the world. China has refused, saying its economic development needs do not permit such a ceiling, but that it has already done more than the US to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Few observers expect any breakthrough next week, though the two sides may agree on joint programs to develop renewable energy sources.

On the economic front, senior US officials have mapped out America's return to prosperity along a path of higher exports and lower consumption. That would mean China could no longer rely on its traditional model of export-led growth.

When it comes to Iran and nuclear nonproliferation, China has used its seat on the United Nations Security Council to frustrate US threats of tighter sanctions against Tehran unless the Islamic Republic abandons its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Still, says Yan Xuetong, who heads the Institute for International Affairs Studies at Tsinghua University here, "conflicts sow the seeds of cooperation."