Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Pacific (and pussyfooting) US president
America’s president shows an alarming lack of self-confidence. So does China’s
FOR some critics of Barack Obama, America’s dependence on China as the holder of some $800 billion of its government debt is to blame for what they see as a humiliating visit there this week. He preferred heaping praise on China’s achievements to hectoring its leaders about its shortcomings. Other critics went further and saw this emollient approach as in keeping with similar embarrassments elsewhere on his Asian tour. In Japan, he bowed deeply to Japan’s Emperor Akihito. In Singapore he attended a meeting with South-East Asian leaders including the prime minister of the repellent Burmese dictatorship.
Over Japan and Myanmar, the sniping was misplaced. Japan, an important ally, deserves present-day courtesy whatever its past crimes. Isolating Myanmar has benefited no one.
On China, too, Obama is surely right to try to build a relationship whose premise is the need for co-operation and partnership rather than the inevitability of discord and rivalry. Rebalancing the global economy, stemming climate change and containing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea all require China-America teamwork and are in the interests of both countries and the rest of the world.
Obama’s critics, however, are right that he could and should have spoken out more loudly for America’s principles and resisted more strongly the choreography of a visit designed to shield China’s people from his persuasive powers. The president said that, although America does not seek to impose its system on other countries, it believes fundamental human freedoms are universal. Yet he refrained from more than implicit criticism of China for its refusal to respect these. And, although he urged his hosts to talk to the Dalai Lama, his refusal to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader before his trip lest it sour the atmosphere sent a dangerous signal: that America’s support for Tibetans’ rights and for human rights more generally is, as China’s leaders have always suspected, just a bargaining counter.
In China, Obama’s handlers connived at a programme which saw his “town-hall meeting” in Shanghai open only to handpicked young Communists and his joint “press conference” with Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, confined to statements from the leaders with no questions allowed. For observers in China, as in America, this conformity with Chinese norms seemed to confirm the relative shift of power between the two countries. It was in glaring contrast to the comparative free-for-all of the visit in 1998 by Bill Clinton, who took on President Jiang Zemin on live television.
Fear of freedom
Yet perhaps the most surprising aspect of this is not Obama’s attempt to charm a potential adversary. That is what he does, from Iran to Myanmar. Rather it is China’s nervousness that is baffling. In 1998 Clinton’s visit was still in the long shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen killings. Since then, China has emerged as a great global power. Its political system, it claims, has been vindicated, and it likes to talk to America as an equal, or indeed as creditor to debtor. Yet its leaders seem more petrified than ever of what might happen if its people were given unfettered access to the thoughts of an American president. This may partly reflect the paranoid style of Hu. But it also reflects how much the system as a whole fears those freedoms Obama should have defended more boldly. The Economist