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Mixed Messages from Asia

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 19, 2009

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CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy says there were few concrete achievements in President Barack Obama's first visit to Asia but the trip helped to raise his standing in the region. And though she cited "no real dramatic changes" resulting from his meetings in China, Economy noted a potential change in the two sides' statements about next month's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. "That was the statement by both sides that the developed countries should go to Copenhagen with a target for emissions reductions and the developing countries should come prepared with national mitigation strategies and that all of this needs to be done with transparency," she says. That could mark a real step forward in climate policy, she said. Economy faulted Obama for putting off a meeting with the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama until after his China visit but said the Chinese side showed " weakness and fearfulness" in not allowing Obama's town hall meeting with students to be broadcast nationwide, and for not allowing questions in his press conference with President Hu Jintao.

President Obama has just spent a week in Asia. †What do you think people will remember most from this trip?

There are really two things that people will take away from President Obama's first trip to the region as president. Above all, he established himself as an Asia-Pacific president, someone who understands the issues in the region, someone who is approaching the region with a new attitude of consultation and openness which is really part of the Asian political culture. It's the way Asians like to do business. This will be very favorably remarked upon moving forward. A second key point was the fact that the president's town hall meeting in Shanghai was not broadcast live to the Chinese people. This can be read in two very different ways. Many people have elected to see this as a sign of U.S. weakness, that somehow the United States, this time around, couldn't manage to persuade the Chinese government to allow the president to speak directly to the Chinese people--as has been done for previous presidents. I see it somewhat differently: It's actually a sign of weakness and fearfulness on the part of the Chinese government that they were unwilling to allow this particular president, who is so articulate, charismatic, and popular globally, to have an audience with the Chinese people.

And they didn't allow any questions in the joint press conference between Obama and President Hu Jintao which reduced the importance of the press conference the next day.

That's right. We saw this time around a Chinese government that is far more concerned about the potential impact that an internationally popular U.S. president could have on the country.

What did they think he might say that would embarrass them so much? Was it on human rights questions?

On both human rights and the Internet [Facebook and other Western sites are blocked], the Chinese are concerned about an open discussion between President Obama and the Chinese public or media. Beyond that, President Obama has a way of connecting with people and of listening that can be challenging to the Chinese. There's no doubt that in an open forum of questions with President Hu Jintao and President Obama, [Obama] is going to come out looking better.

Every president has now visited China since relations were launched during the Nixon administration. So what did you make of the totality of the meeting?

The Obama administration, at least a month ago if not more, began to lower expectations for the visit and to suggest that there wouldn't be that many concrete deliverables that would come out of the summit. What did come out of the summit was really everything but the kitchen sink in terms of the range of issues that the two countries have pledged to cooperate on moving forward. This is a very traditional U.S.-China kind of statement in many respects, again with very few elements of concrete progress but a lot of pledges to continue to negotiate and to try to cooperate. Everything from military transparency to climate change to trade and proliferation is included in the joint statement. The real question is how are we going to move this relationship forward.

"[Obama] established himself as an Asia-Pacific president, someone who understands the issues in the region, someone who is approaching the region with a new attitude of consultation and openness which is really part of the Asian political culture."

In other words, it was more of the same but no real dramatic changes.

I think there were no real dramatic changes. The one element of change is potentially in the discussion of climate and energy, and that was the statement by both sides that the developed countries should go to Copenhagen with a target for emissions reductions and the developing countries should come prepared with national mitigation strategies and that all of this needs to be done with transparency. This is potentially significant because in the readout of these statements afterwards it seems that the United States will come with a target and that the Chinese will come with an emissions intensity or a carbon-intensity reduction target to Copenhagen. If that's the case, that is a real step forward. Then the question becomes what does the Chinese target look like; that remains to be seen on both sides but particularly on the Chinese side. But that's the one element where if you read between the lines, it suggests that something important might be in the works.

The Chinese are very upset still about Obama's protectionist tarrifs he announced in September on inexpensive tires made in China, but there's nothing more in the works right now, is there?

Issues of trade and currency are going to continue to plague this relationship. Both countries are still in the midst of trying to come out of the global financial crisis. China may be a few steps ahead of the United States in that process, but they're very concerned about their export market and very committed to maintaining their currency at a stable level despite calls for change.

On military issues, there really wasn't too much discussed. The United States is always concerned about what China is doing with its military and vice versa.

We had a visit here in late October by [Vice Chairman of China's Central Military Commission] General Xu Caihou, and overall this visit was viewed as a reasonably positive one. The joint statement suggests that there will be a number of additional exchanges of senior military personnel. But in terms of real progress, there's not much.

You said there's desire for transparency. In other words we'd like to know what they're doing and they'd like to do know what we're doing.

They do know what we're doing. We just don't know what they're doing. Actually, they're not so big on transparency. You can find in many statements by Chinese military analysts and others comments to the effect that in fact they're not going to be transparent in this regard.

Going back to the human rights complaint. Ever since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went there early in the administration, there's been criticism from human rights groups that the administration is too soft on human rights. Do you agree with that?

It was a mistake for President Obama not to meet with the Dalai Lama before visiting China. A precedent was set by President George W. Bush to separate the Dalai Lama from the China issue and President Obama shouldn't have reintroduced the linkage. He should have stuck with the precedent of the Bush administration because in the end, we get nothing in return for not meeting the Dalai Lama. At the same time, I do think President Obama did a fine job in his town hall speech in Shanghai, hitting on human rights points about the need for the protection of religious and ethinic freedoms, and that human rights are universal rights. That message was transmitted very clearly to the Chinese leadership.

What about the rest of his trip? He started in Japan and there's this ongoing issue over the relocation of the air base at Okinawa?

There were a lot of ruffled feathers before President Obama went to Japan in part because of statements that Japanese officials made, and in part because the statements that have been made by U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Secretary Gates' remarks were not in the† consultative approach that President Obama has talked about. But the most important thing that President Obama did was to begin the process of establishing a personal relationship with Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. Prime Minister Hatoyama has agreed to a $5 billion, five-year package of reconstruction aid for Afghanistan; I think that's very significant as a sign of support and friendship. Of course, there are other issues that we still have on our plate, such as the future of the Okinawa base.

The two countries already agreed in 2006 that the United States would move some military activity from Futenma to a less populated area within Okinawa, in addition to moving 10,000 troops to Guam. There has been rising local pressure to move the air operations outside the prefecture altogether. Prime Minister Hatoyama is currently reviewing the 2006 agreement and is searching for alternative solutions. The two leaders did agree to establish a commission to address the issue.

And then he moved on to this combined APEC and ASEAN meeting and I guess he was the first president to go to an ASEAN meeting. In Singapore, that's where they had this agreement not to really expect much out of Copenhagen, right?

Right, that was part of it. This makes the discussion in China all the more interesting because† they decided very publicly that we weren't going to be seeking a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen, but then we turned around in China and perhaps suggested that we really do want to make some significant process.

Do you think other countries will go along with this?

Many other countries are already there. What you're basically doing is bringing the two laggards--the United States and China--back into the game.

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