US eyes China as global partner

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

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

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.

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."

Opportunities for greater cooperation would blossom if Beijing defined its long-term interests more broadly, argues Drew Thompson, director of the China program at the Nixon Center in Washington. "It is absolutely not in China's interests for Iran to have a nuclear weapon," for example, he says, "but Beijing is reluctant to join the Western consensus that something has to be done about it.

"Their approach is strict respect for national sovereignty and noninterference in other countries' affairs," he says. "There is a new dynamic where Chinese interests increasingly intersect with America's, but Chinese policy has to catch up to that."

It may be some time before China sheds principles that have guided its foreign policy for three decades. One such principle, including that enunciated by Deng Xiaoping, who cautioned comrades: "Do not show our strength," nor seek international leadership.

Chinese analysts also complain that while China's economy has become the world's third largest, outsiders may overestimate the country's strength. China's economy is less than one-third the size of America's, they note, and per capita incomes are one-eighth the size of America's.

"Our cities look like Europe, but our countryside looks like Africa," says Professor Jin. "We are a very fragile big power, with more domestic challenges than any other. That will make China very inward-looking for the coming years.

"China just wants stable relations with the Obama administration, no more," he adds. "If the US expects too much and tries to outsource responsibility, there will be problems."

Such talk suggests strongly that "though the US is asking a lot, it is not clear [the Chinese] are ready to ... deliver," says Professor Shambaugh. Chinese leaders, he says, "are still having big debates about ... how far to go, how much to do with America, what they are capable of doing, and the cost benefit" of stepping out on the world stage.

So far, China has contributed troops to 18 UN peacekeeping operations and deployed three Navy ships on antipirate patrols in the Gulf of Aden. US officials say they hope to tempt Beijing into dipping another toe into the waters of global responsibility in Afghanistan.

The prospect of Islamic radicalism spreading into the Muslim republic of Xinjiang in western China, the drug trade, and regional instability all threaten Beijing's interests. China has run successful counternarcotics programs in Burma (Myanmar), and has the experience and resources to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan.

"There is an opportunity for China to take a major humanitarian role in Afghanistan," says Dr. Thompson. "This is an area where they could take international responsibility." •

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