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.

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."

That's not how it's often seen among China's neighbors, however. Cultivating spheres of cooperation requires mutual trust and respect and a stable economic and security environment. For Asia in recent years, and for the US, too, these elements have often been lacking in the meteoric rise of a new economic superpower without the advantages of transparency, the rule of law, and popular accountability.

China's unprecedented economic growth is not seen as wholly benign. Its economy may well multiply several times between 2000 and 2020. Its foreign-exchanges reserves, meanwhile, are now 14 times larger than a decade ago. China has absorbed most foreign investment dollars in Asia and scooped up natural resources and other industrial materials, while locking up consumer markets with its manufactured goods – effectively shutting out emerging economies in the region.

The democracies on China's periphery, especially Taiwan (which remains under direct military threat from Beijing) but recently South Korea and Thailand as well, feel more palpably than other governments a suspicion and distrust toward Beijing, even as they experience some spillover benefits from one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Meanwhile, China eschews a leadership role for itself, leaving doubts about its intentions as Asia's future dominant power.

A recent survey of Chinese elites at a range of policy institutions reported that the respondents "overwhelmingly rejected" proposals for how China could take on larger international responsibilities, including conflict resolution and regional security commitments. "Almost all of them believe that China should be active internationally, but when asked what role their country could play, over 70 percent thought China's greatest contribution would simply flow from securing China's own stability and development," wrote Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder in a newsletter of Honolulu's Pacific Forum, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Facing the challenge of a resurgent China that eschews international leadership, Obama's search for a working partnership with Beijing is easily frustrated. His appeals for "sharing the burden of leadership" and his invoking the world's expectations about cooperation on global issues such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation were heard more than once during his meetings in Shanghai and Beijing, though he avoided exhorting his hosts as his predecessors often did.

Yet compared with previous US presidents, the need for cooperation is vastly greater. As Washington's No. 1 creditor with at least $800 billion in US debt, Beijing is now directly concerned with budgetary implications of US domestic programs.

Meanwhile, an unsustainable trade gap needs rebalancing as US unemployment strikes a 26-year high and pressures rise for protecting US manufacturers from mostly Chinese competition.

The "deliverables" may eventually come. But if Obama is to make good on his declaration that he is "America's first Pacific president," he may need to travel across the Pacific more often than the Atlantic and show up in even more unfamiliar places than he has so far.

Julian Baum is a former Beijing correspondent for the Monitor, and a former Taiwan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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