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Obama's China Trip Full of Potential

New America Media, Commentary, George Koo Posted: Nov 16, 2009

President Barack Obama has begun his one week, four-country visit to Asia. The fact that about half of that time will be spent in China is a measure of the importance of the U.S.-China relationship.

From the start of his presidency, Obama dispensed with the customary China-bashing and immediately declared the need for a strong bilateral relationship with China in order to tackle the many problems that confront the world, not least the economic downturn, climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

The actions of his administration followed his rhetoric. His two Chinese-American cabinet members, energy secretary Steven Chu and commerce secretary Gary Locke, were among the first high-ranking officials to visit Beijing and begin the dialogue on collaboration. Secretary of State Hillary Clintons first trip after taking office was to China. Defense secretary Robert Gates has also made an official visit and treasury secretary Timothy Geithner has been to China more than once.

Obamas actions have brought results. Chinas Premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea and came back to report that Pyongyang was ready to re-enter the six party talks, subject to the United States being willing to conduct direct bilateral discussions. In response, the White House has announced its intention to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang. This is a refreshing change from the unilateral approach of the Bush administration.

Recently, Xu Caihou, vice chairman of Chinas Central Military Commission, visited the United States, hosted by Gates. As part of his 11-day visit, Xu was taken to sensitive military sites, including the Strategic Command headquarters, as evidence of the desire for closer cooperation. The result was seven points of consensus that will serve as a blueprint for closer military cooperation and exchanges.

Beijing has been making a fuss over recent remarks by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg about "strategic reassurance between the nations as part of the road to closer partnership. China views this development as an elevation of the importance of the relationship. Zhou Wenzhong, Chinas ambassador to Washington, remarked that he has witnessed the bilateral tie evolving from one of frequent tensions to one of extensive cooperation.

In light of the warming bilateral relations, what can we expect out of Obamas meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in Beijing? They certainly have a lot to talk about. China would love to hear Obama declare unequivocally that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China. Obama probably would ask for more assurances on arms control and non-proliferation and more military transparency and cooperation.

While both sides profess to be against protectionism, China would want Obamas assurance that he would not yield to domestic protectionist pressures despite his declarations to the contrary. Obama would like China to strengthen the value of the renminbi against the dollar. China might ask about the granting of market economy status, which China has received from more than 90 countries; the status lessens trade disputes.

The most likely agreement to come out of Beijing is some kind of declaration on climate change that would allow both nations to attend the December climate summit in Copenhagen with some appearance of a united front.

Most specific agreements take many working-level bilateral meetings to hammer out the details. Unless these meetings have already taken place, more specific announcements are unlikely to come from Obamas visit. The most likely would be agreement on a framework to allow negotiations to proceed. Indeed, the declaration of a framework for closer cooperation was the result of an April meeting between Obama and Hu Jintao, which led to the subsequent series of positive developments.

The young people in Shanghai are excited by Obamas plan to begin his China visit with an open, town hall question-and-answer. Obama has rock star appeal among Chinese youth because he embodies the personality and character of a leader young people feel they can relate to as opposed to some stern-faced Chinese official they have learned to dreadas one Chinese commentator put it.

Bill Clinton made his greatest impact on China when he visited after his presidency. On national TV, he put his arms around a young man afflicted with AIDS. This image changed Chinas attitude about AIDS victims, and Wen Jiabao was later seen shaking hands with AIDS patients.

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Obamas visit will be to turn the stern faces of Chinese officials into ones with friendlier appearances. The Chinese people will remember Obama for a long time if that transformation occurs.

George Koo is a board member of New America Media and a frequent contributor.

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