Secretary Clinton and China: So Far, So Good

I’m often asked what the Chinese think of the election of Barack Obama. This is a question that has several answers. On one level, the election of an African-American as President of the United States has reinforced in the minds of the Chinese how unique and different the U.S. is as a country. On another, more practical level, though, they’re not sure what an Obama administration’s policies towards China are likely to be.

As a result, China has greeted President Obama’s administration nervously, believing that he would press Beijing harder on human rights and trade issues than former President George W. Bush. Treasury Secretary Geithner reinforced this view with his unfortunate comments accusing China of being a currency manipulator.

At the same time that Geithner was making his comments, Secretary Clinton said that the Obama Administration wanted a broader, “comprehensive dialogue” with China. The Chinese have been waiting ever since to hear exactly what Secretary Clinton has in mind.

In this context, Secretary Clinton’s trip to Beijing was especially important to the Chinese because it promised to give them their first glimpse as to what its relationship with the United States might be under Obama.

By all accounts, Clinton’s visit to Beijing, and her meetings with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, were fairly non-controversial. Secretary Clinton appeared to heed the advice of analysts not to confront the Chinese with a series of demands on her first visit as secretary of state.

Ahead of her meetings with China’s leaders, Clinton said that she wanted to focus on the most pressing global problems, such as the economic crisis, global warming and security concerns in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. With respect to matters such as Tibet and human rights Clinton said shortly before arriving in Beijing that:

Our pressing on those issues (human rights, Taiwan and Tibet) can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.

A successful first visit notwithstanding, all that can be said at this point about the all important relationship between the United States and China is: “So far, so good.” The devil is in the detail, and if there are differences between the two countries, they will begin to emerge as President Obama, who is due to meet President Hu Jintao at a G20 meeting in London in April, and Secretary Clinton tell China exactly what they want China to do to help end the global economic crisis and reduce carbon emissions. Despite the cordial first meetings, China can be expected to do what is in its own best interests on these two fronts, which may or may not be consistent with those of the United States.

Moreover, human rights advocates were angered by Clinton’s decision not to press China, at least this time, on issues such as human rights and Tibet. A sampling of what’s been said so far:

T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said the global rights lobby was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by Clinton’s remarks. “The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues,” he said. “But by commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future US initiatives to protect those rights in China,” he said.

Students for a Free Tibet said Clinton’s remarks sent the wrong signal to China at a sensitive time. “The US government cannot afford to let Beijing set the agenda,” said Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based advocacy group. China has been pouring troops into the Himalayan territory ahead of next month’s 50th anniversary of the uprising that sent Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama into exile in India. “Leaders really need to step up and pressure China. It’s often easy to wonder whether pressure makes a difference. It may not make a difference in one day or one month, but it would be visible after some years,” Dorjee said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had sent a letter to Clinton before her maiden Asia visit urging her to raise human rights concerns with Chinese leaders.

We haven’t heard the last from these groups. When push comes to shove, how will President Obama and Secretary Clinton react to continued pressure from them?

Finally, the discussion to date has been all about what the US might ask of China. How about what China wants from the United States? With the US stock market back at its November lows, and the Shanghai Composite Index up 32 percent since then, China has been getting high marks for its handling of the global economic crisis while the US struggles. As a holder of $700 billion of US treasury securities, China has an interest in a strong dollar and has to be concerned about the huge amount of debt that the US will be taking on as part of its various stimulus and bailout programs. Expect China to become more vocal about US economic policy in the months ahead.

Like it or not, the fact is that the balance of power has shifted between the two countries. As my friend Jim McGregor, author of One Billion Customers told Jaime FlorCruz at CNN: “The U.S. used to come here and lecture China,” he says. “Now the US is coming here to kiss up to China.”

One Response to “Secretary Clinton and China: So Far, So Good”

  1. Yeah, I hope they kiss each other well and not end up biting each other… 🙂

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