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Obama bids China farewell with Great Wall tour, modest expectations

Obama, who called the Great Wall 'magical,' leaves with new awareness of US-China interdependence – as well as differing priorities.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2009

President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China, on Wednesday.

Charles Dharapak/AP



President Obama flew to South Korea Wednesday, ending his maiden visit to China and leaving behind a strong impression that the new partnership he seeks with the Asian giant remains to be built, issue by issue.

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Mr. Obama and his Chinese host, Hu Jintao, spoke enthusiastically of their two countries' common interests and their prospects for cooperation. It is clear, though, that as China plays an increasingly active role on the world stage, Beijing will not always be at Washington's side.

"Often what makes them agree is their interdependence, more than what they have in common," says David Zweig, a political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "They do not necessarily have the same interests."

That leaves the two countries in "an awkward situation," adds Jiang Wenran, who teaches Chinese politics at the University of Alberta. "Their agendas do not coincide … but both feel that their relationship is too important to allow discord to distract them."

That awkwardness was on physical display Tuesday in the presidents' joint appearance before the press. They were stiff and separate, addressing nary a word to each other, as each ran through a list of his primary concerns.

On the subject of Iran, for example, where Washington is seeking greater Chinese support for a threat of sanctions if Tehran does not properly explain its nuclear program, Obama said Iran faced "consequences" if it failed to do so.

"On this point our two nations … are unified", he said.

Mr. Hu, however, stuck to the much vaguer and traditional Chinese formulation that it was "very important … to appropriately resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations."

Addressing the thorny issue of the weakness of the Chinese currency, which gives Beijing's exports an advantage, Obama said he was "pleased to note the Chinese commitment, made in past statements, to move toward a more market-oriented exchange rate over time."