In Beijing, Obama cautiously confronts a rising China

As President Obama began his three-day visit in Beijing, he vaunted the potential of enhanced economic cooperation between the US and China, while also toeing a careful line on the Hong Kong political protests.

The purple silk, mandarin-collared shirt that President Obama wore for an Asia-Pacific leaders’ photo Monday was sure evidence that the normally suit-and-tie president is in Beijing for a three-day visit.

But Mr. Obama’s broad smile in the traditional “family photo” of leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting said nothing of the tricky nature of what is his second China visit as president. This trip includes a state visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.

Mr. Xi will be looking to advance a vision that sees the United States as an important but receding power in an Asia where the relationship that matters will increasingly be the one between China and its neighbors.

Obama, on the other hand, is out to demonstrate that his administration’s “rebalance” of US interests in Asia is on track – including the extension of American values such as political and economic freedoms across the region. The US has tried to do this without feeding China’s suspicions that the “Asia pivot” is really about containing China.

Obama opened his visit Monday with a cautious tone, vaunting the potential of enhanced economic cooperation between the world’s largest and second-largest economies, while also toeing a careful line on the Hong Kong political protests.

“We want China to do well,” Obama told Asian business leaders assembled at their own summit on the sidelines of the APEC forum. “We compete for business, but we also seek to cooperate on a broad range of challenges and shared opportunities.”

On Hong Kong, Obama made it clear the US is not pushing for bolder action by Hong Kong protesters – something some in Beijing’s official circles have indicated they suspect – nor for confrontation with the Chinese leadership.

At a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Obama offered a measured US approach to the political standoff. “We’re not going to stop speaking out on behalf of the things that we care about,” he said. At the same time, Obama said, the key concern for the US in the Hong Kong dispute is “to make sure violence is avoided.” He went on to acknowledge that China would not always act according to America’s vision for the world.

“We don’t expect China to follow an American model in every instance,” he said, before adding, “We’re going to continue to have concerns about human rights.”

As it turns out, the Beijing visit was also shaping up as a showcase for a new post-cold-war low in relations between the US and Russia. In particular, Obama’s dismissal of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a leader the US can work with was on display.

Obama and Mr. Putin ran into each other on the stage for the silk-shirt family photo, and White House officials confirmed that the two leaders exchanged a few words. But both US and Russian officials said there was no actual “discussion” between the two.

Clearly, the focus of Obama’s visit is on China – and on finding a way of working with Xi on issues like cybersecurity, climate change, North Korea’s nuclear threat, regional trade, and East Asian maritime security.

On Monday, Obama made a small but telling announcement that suggested the steady bridge-building the administration hopes to pursue with Xi. The two governments, the president revealed, have agreed on a new program that will allow students a five-year visa for study (replacing the current one-year, annually renewable student visa) and business people and tourists a 10-year visa.

Obama said the change would pump billions of dollars into the US economy and boost tourism-related jobs in the US by hundreds of thousands over the next decade.

Yet Xi – who is only in the second year of a likely 10-year presidency and who is feeling his oats at the helm of an increasingly regionally dominant power – is unlikely to be swayed from his perception of a lame-duck president reigning over a receding global power, some regional analysts say.

China, they note, is already the No. 1 trading partner of two-thirds of its East Asian neighbors: Roughly one-fifth of South Korea’s trade and nearly a quarter of Australia’s is with China. Analysts also say that the Chinese military’s continued flouting of established territorial waters in the East and South China Seas suggests a confident power asserting itself for a century of rising dominance.

But others say Obama also has a number of good cards in his hand as he sits down with Xi – among them, the strengthening US economy and many Asian countries’ closer affinity with America’s global vision.

“China is trying to define Obama as a weak leader, and by extension, the United States as a weakening country,” says Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “But structurally, the US is far stronger than many assume.”

The US has a number of crucial close friends and allies in the region, Mr. Blumenthal says, is on the way to becoming a net exporter of energy, “has the world’s most powerful and tested military and ... has a set of principles and ideals that speak to universal hopes,” he says. “China has none of these things.”

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