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Obama's China trip shows power shifting

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BEIJING -- President Barack Obama's first visit to China underscored a shifting balance of power: two giants moving closer to being equals.

In this week's choreographed show of U.S.-Chinese good will, Obama's pledge to treat China as a trusted global partner won a return promise of shared effort on world troubles -- but not much else.

Standing stiffly together in the Great Hall of the People after a morning of talks, Obama and President Hu Jintao talked expansively Tuesday of common burdens and joint efforts on global warming, nuclear disarmament, the anemic economy and other big issues. They dealt coolly with differences over human rights and trade, leaving them out of public view or reserved for coded language.

Their first formal summit featured none of the rancor that spoiled many previous summits between the nations. If there was any pressure on Beijing to make immediate concessions, neither leader let on.

But Obama went into the meetings with a weaker hand than most past presidents. The battering that economic recession and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given U.S. prestige is felt nowhere more keenly than in a China that is busily growing and accruing global clout.

"The U.S. has a lot to ask from China," said Xue Chen, a researcher on strategic affairs at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. "On the other hand, the U.S. has little to offer China."

Obama's outreach here continued the type of pragmatic bridge-building he has used in Europe and the Middle East in hopes of earning good will that will produce payoffs down the road.

In China, though, the challenge is of a different magnitude. The Chinese government is America's biggest foreign creditor, with $800 billion of federal U.S. debt that gives it extraordinary power in the relationship. Its military buildup is rubbing up against America's influence in Asia. And Beijing feels the global recession, sparked by U.S. financial industry excesses, vindicates its authoritarian leadership.

Gone are the days when a U.S. president could come to China expecting the release of a dissident or a trade concession as an atmospheric sweetener. For Obama, he not only didn't get that, but not one notable shift by the Chinese toward U.S. positions in key areas such as climate, nuclear challenges in Iran and North Korea, human rights or monetary policy.

For Obama, going back home from a weeklong Asia trip with little more than hopes that he's laying groundwork for better cooperation could sour, fast, on Americans. He was elected in part because of his promises to restore the battered U.S. image abroad. But if the cost of that is too much listening and too little getting, the public could well grow impatient.

One sign, albeit small, that people are growing weary with Obama's pragmatic humility overseas: A mini-furor erupted in the U.S. when he bowed to greet the emperor of Japan in Tokyo on Saturday. Conservative commentators are calling it another instance of groveling before a foreign leader.

The effect could stretch beyond foreign affairs. Many Americans still think of the U.S. as an unassailable superpower and don't want presidents who make them think otherwise. Problems in this area could make it more difficult to forge ahead with already divisive health care reforms, make bold choices on a new strategy for the drawn-out war in Afghanistan, or get re-elected.

For China, Hu and other leaders clearly delighted in the show of face Obama gave them. Far from crowing, however, Hu gave Obama a respectful welcome by soldiers in dress uniforms in the Great Hall of the People and in-depth discussions that ran overtime.

At a state banquet Tuesday night, the People's Liberation Army band serenaded Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and much of the Chinese leadership with American songs including "I just Called to Say I Love You," "We are the World" and "In the Mood."

The joint statement that Obama and Hu issued was the broadest of its kind in 30 years of formal relations. It contained expressions of cooperation in relations between their two often-mistrustful militaries, on a human rights dialogue, on space exploration and on shoring up Afghanistan and Pakistan -- as well as the big topics of climate change, economic recovery and defanging North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs.

Chinese leaders, however, are wary of Obama's charisma. Though they prevented a nationwide broadcast and censored Web transcripts of a town hall-style meeting he held with Chinese students in Shanghai on Monday, students who attended said they found Obama and his rise to the presidency inspiring. Bloggers cheered his appeal against censorship of the Internet.

"It's wonderful to have the President Obama here," Lu Hualin, a middle-aged office administrator in Beijing's business district, said Tuesday. "I didn't watch the town hall, but it's pretty obvious that the Chinese really like him for the energy, intellect and charisma he brings to the conversation. I think we'll welcome anyone who has an agenda to better the world and work toward world peace."

Obama's talk about "shared burdens" among global partners both flatters and troubles a Chinese leadership consumed with guiding a rapidly changing society that is expecting freer expression and rising living standards.

"Obama is more cooperative and respectful. But the secret meaning of this smart diplomacy is to show a smiling face while taking money out of your pocket," said Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at Renmin University. "Many partners, including China, are not ready to take on that responsibility."

Given the conflicting agendas, a danger is that the U.S. and Chinese governments may misinterpret how far each is willing to accommodate the other. Hints of discord were evident beneath the edifice of cooperation in Obama's and Hu's joint appearance Tuesday.

On North Korea and Iran, Obama said negotiations provided a way forward but stressed that should they fail both countries would face consequences. With China's budding energy investments in Iran and worries about instability in neighboring North Korea, Hu merely cited a need for continued talk.

Hu said each country should respect the other's "core interests" -- code for Washington to end arms sales for Taiwan and support for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan exiled government. The Xinhua News Agency later quoted Hu as saying Washington should also ban advocates for Muslim ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, the western China region where anti-Chinese rioting flared anew this summer.

Said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs later: "I did not expect, and I can speak authoritatively for the president on this, that we thought the waters would part and that everything would change over the course of our almost two-and-a-half-day trip to China."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Charles Hutzler is AP's Beijing bureau chief; Jennifer Loven is AP White House correspondent.


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