Boxed in by ceremony, with any hint of controversy airbrushed out of his remarks by the regime’s censors, with press conference questions banned and his interlocutors ruthlessly screened, he has struggled to get his message across.
Wearing a similar suit and tie to his host, President Hu Jintao, he has sometimes sounded practically confucian himself. “Our relationship going forward will not be without disagreement or difficulty,” he intoned yesterday. “But, because of our co-operation, both the United States and China are more prosperous and secure.”
He had to fly halfway round the world to say that? So the closest to a breakthrough moment was when the President spoke of the values that inspire his nation. “I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights,” he told reporters at the no-questions press conference in Beijing.
“We do not believe that these principles are unique to America but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities.”
It has been a difficult trip for Mr Obama. The power balance between the US and China has changed from what it once was. China has taken a lead position in helping to bail out the world economy, and as America’s largest foreign creditor, holding $800bn in US government bonds, it is keen to match its financial muscle with political influence. And President Obama has had to swallow the medicine.
“China’s partnership has proven critical in our efforts to pull ourselves out of the worst recession for generations,” he said, admitting the uncomfortable truth. And on issues such as the economy, climate change, energy and the nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea, the two sides found a measure of agreement.
While the Nobel Peace laureate has tried to persuade his hosts of the benefits of allowing greater press freedom, he has also had to be careful not to be seen to be trying to interfere in domestic politics, something the Chinese government finds intolerable.
At the same time, he has had to deal with domestic pressure to push Beijing on its yuan currency, Washington’s biggest irritant at present: Americans believe the low value of the yuan, which makes Chinese goods cheaper abroad, is causing global imbalances and creating political difficulties at a time when American factories are closing their shutters at a rate not seen since the Great Depression.
America’s unhappiness with the level of the yuan is matched by China’s exasperation at growing protectionist sentiment in the United States, as Mr Hu pointed out. “I stressed to President Obama that under the current circumstances our two countries need to oppose and reject protectionism in all its manifestations in an even stronger stand,” he said.
He was referring to special duties of 35 per cent imposed on Chinese-made tyre imports in September, and a number of other tariffs on Chinese goods which have created tensions over trade in various sectors.
On the issue of Tibet, President Obama tried to have it both ways. He pleased China by saying that the United States accepted that Tibet was part of China, but at the same time urged China to engage in dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Standing alongside Mr Hu, this took quite a lot of courage, as the Chinese despise the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” who is not to be trusted.
Mr Obama did not meet the Dalai Lama when he was in Washington in early October, but the spiritual leader has said he hopes they will meet after Mr Obama returns from China.
The two presidents also said they agreed on re-starting the collapsed six-nation effort to transform the Korean peninsula into a nuclear-free zone, which the Chinese said was essential to “peace and stability in north-east Asia”.
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