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In Obama's China trip, a stark contrast with the past
The U.S. tone toward Beijing is now much more conciliatory

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.

But Clinton and other U.S. presidents never needed China's help nearly as much as Obama's America needs Hu's.

Whether as a creditor, an emitter of greenhouse gases or a neighbor of Afghanistan, China has clout that the United States now desperately needs. "The U.S.-China relationship has gone global," said Jon Huntsman Jr., the new U.S. ambassador to Beijing and a fluent Chinese speaker.

At the same time, however, China has been far more insistent about asserting its will, most obviously in small but symbolically significant matters of stage management. A town hall-style meeting in Shanghai that the White House had hoped would allow the president to reach out to ordinary Chinese was drained of spontaneity by Chinese-scripted choreography. Tuesday's news conference had no questions, at China's behest.

The Obama White House said it pushed back against restrictions, and it denied that the nation's indebtedness to China has made it any less forceful.

Referring to the fact that China holds Treasury securities worth nearly $800 billion, as well as billions more in other forms of U.S. debt, Michael Froman, economic adviser on the National Security Council, said "the $800 billion never came up in conversation."

"The president dealt with every issue on his agenda in a very direct way and pulled no punches," he said.

U.S. officials insisted that, despite constraints, Obama still got his message to the Chinese public. State television provided live coverage of his Tuesday appearance with Hu, which featured an appeal by the U.S. president on human rights.

"America's bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights," Obama said, "are universal rights" that "should be available to all people." He also urged China to resume talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

White House officials described Obama as even more forceful behind closed doors, suggesting that the administration is more eager to engage with reality than grandstand. Obama had "as direct a discussion of human rights as I've seen by any high-level visitor with the Chinese" when he met with Hu, said Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council's chief Asia hand, who also worked for President Clinton.

Furthermore, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, the administration had not expected "that the waters would part and everything would change over our almost 2 1/2 -day trip to China."

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