Ties that bind, and labels to keep in mind
For Obama, as with his predecessors, defining the U.S. relationship with China involves some semantic calisthenics
When President Obama arrives in Shanghai and Beijing next week, he will face a prickly question that has vexed presidents since Richard M. Nixon first visited Mao Zedong in 1972: How exactly does the United States define its relationship with China?
Over the decades, U.S. leaders have run through a kaleidoscope of terms, from "tacit allies" against the Soviet Union in the early 1970s to "strategic competitors" at the start of President George W. Bush's administration.
When Obama took office, his advisers spent weeks haggling with Chinese officials over what to call a relationship that has left China holding more than $1 trillion of American debt, turned the United States into China's single-biggest export market and enmeshed the nations in an ever-tighter web of mutual dependence.
Washington and Beijing finally came up with a bland characterization, declaring their ties "positive, cooperative and comprehensive." This replaced a Bush-era label that had also defined the relationship as "candid," a word Beijing disliked because it suggested that the two sides might criticize each other.
Such verbal machinations involve far more than semantic quibbling. Words frame how the two sides confront very real issues such as trade, climate change and human rights. "It's something we have always had with the Chinese, dating back to the 1970s," said Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama's senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council. "You can't really go through an administration without having some label that provides a general characterization."
The right words matter
Getting the right words has been the cornerstone of Chinese statecraft and philosophy since the age of Confucius about 2 1/2 millennia ago.
"There must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything," decreed Confucius in the Analects, an ancient compilation of his teachings. "If names are not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried to success." Rectifying names, Confucius said, is the starting point for all sound policy.
Nixon recognized this when, after a long career denouncing Mao and his communist regime, he decided to reach out to Beijing. He first signaled the shift in 1970, when, for the first time, he publicly referred to Mao's domain by its official name, the People's Republic of China. He had previously called it Red China, or worse.
But what should Obama, America's most rhetorically gifted president in decades, call today's China?
How does he describe -- and thus deal with -- a country that declares loyalty to Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought while boasting one of world's most competitive capitalist economies, a one-party state that censors media and jails dissidents while giving most ordinary Chinese more personal freedom and economic opportunity than they have had in decades, perhaps even centuries?
Obama's visit to China, the third stop on his week-long Asian tour, will be full of symbolic gestures and rhetorical flourishes as he tries to build trust with Beijing and the Chinese public while signaling America's faith in free speech and other liberties.
He is scheduled to attend a state dinner in Beijing hosted by President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, and, like Nixon, tour the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Substantive matters on the agenda include climate change; efforts to fortify a still-fragile global economy; North Korea's nuclear program; the war in Afghanistan, which shares a border with China's Muslim-populated west; and Pakistan, a long-standing ally of China that is at the center of Obama's foreign-policy concerns.