Obama's China trip stands in stark contrast to those of past presidents

President Barack Obama concluded his first-ever trip to China by visiting the Great Wall on Wednesday.
By Andrew Higgins and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BEIJING -- President Obama has emerged from his first trip to China with no big breakthroughs on important issues, such as Iran's nuclear program or China's currency. Yet after two days of talks with the United States' biggest creditor, the administration asserted that relations between the two countries are at "at an all-time high."

Although one concrete advance emerged -- that the United States may offer a target for carbon-emission cuts to boost climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month if China offers its own proposal -- it was a relatively small step for a new president who had campaigned on a promise to enact far-reaching change in U.S. diplomatic interactions.

If there was any significant change during this trip, in fact, it was in the United States' newly conciliatory and sometimes laudatory tone. In a joint appearance with President Hu Jintao on Tuesday, Obama hailed China as an economic partner that has "proved critical in our effort to pull ourselves out of the worst recession in generations." The day before, speaking to students in Shanghai, he described China's rising prosperity as "an accomplishment unparalleled in human history."

Obama's trip stood in stark contrast to visits by his predecessors. But this reflected not so much a policy shift by a new administration in Washington as a dramatic and much bigger change in the power dynamic, particularly in economics, over the past decade -- a change that has been the central undercurrent of Obama's swing through China this week.

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton stood before television cameras in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the United States owed more money to Spain than to China and did more than twice as much trade with Mexico. At a freewheeling news conference, Clinton criticized China's military crackdown a decade earlier in Tiananmen Square and traded spirited jibes with President Jiang Zemin.

On Tuesday, Obama stood in the same building alongside another Chinese leader. This time, with the United States in hock to China for more than $1 trillion dollars and flooded with Chinese-made goods, it was a Chinese-style news conference. Each leader read a prepared statement and eyed the other in silence. There were no questions.

Since leaving Washington last Thursday for an eight-day tour of Asia, Obama has occasionally nudged China on issues such as Tibet and Internet censorship. But he has more often trumpeted China's achievements and pleaded with Beijing for increased help on the world stage.

China returned the effusiveness in its music selection at a state dinner for Obama on Tuesday night. The People's Liberation Army serenaded him and other U.S. officials with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "In the Mood" and "We Are the World," as Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sat on either side of the Chinese president over a steak dinner.

In many ways, the United States and China have never been closer, as reflected in a raft of joint projects outlined during Obama's visit here. Ahead of meetings with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday, Obama said the relationship is deepening beyond trade and economics to cover climate, security and other matters of international concern. Those would include previously announced and now reinvigorated efforts on stem-cell research, crime prevention and military contacts. But with the rituals and even the substance of the two nations' interactions increasingly on Chinese terms, Obama advisers insisted that their overtures and polite tone are in pursuit of long-term results, a reflection of China's growing importance.

When President Clinton visited China in 1998, the United States was still basking in its position as Cold War victor and the world's sole superpower. It sought China's help on only a narrow range of international issues, such as the spread of missile technology and North Korea. China was just shaking off the stigma of the 1989 crackdown. It was the seventh-biggest holder of U.S. Treasury securities. Today, China is the nation's biggest creditor and its trade with the United States has grown sevenfold.

Also changed are the faces in the Chinese leadership. Jiang, Clinton's 1998 sparring partner in the Great Hall of the People, was an often boisterous character who liked to sing, and also comb his hair, in public. Hu, Obama's host, is a far more buttoned-down and cautious sort.

Clinton could not tell Chinese leaders what to do. Indeed, he had to abandon a big push on human rights when China simply said no. And his challenge to Jiang over Tiananmen was paired with a significant concession over Taiwan.

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