Obama finds China at ease with saying no to the U.S.

Chinese President Hu Jintao talks with President Obama at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, in Beijing.

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Chinese President Hu Jintao talks with President Obama at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, in Beijing.

BEIJING — In six hours of meetings, at two dinners and during a stilted 30-minute news conference in which President Hu Jintao did not allow questions, President Barack Obama was confronted, on his first visit, with a fast-rising China more willing to say no to the United States.

On topics like Iran (Hu did not publicly discuss the possibility of sanctions), China's currency (he made no nod toward changing its value) and human rights (a joint statement bluntly acknowledged that the two countries "have differences"), China held firm against most American demands.

With China's micro-management of Obama's appearances in the country, the trip did more to showcase China's ability to push back against outside pressure than it did to advance the main issues on Obama's agenda, analysts said.

"China effectively stage-managed President Obama's public appearances, got him to make statements endorsing Chinese positions of political importance to them and effectively squelched discussions of contentious issues such as human rights and China's currency policy," said Eswar S. Prasad, a China specialist at Cornell University. "In a masterstroke, they shifted the public discussion from the global risks posed by Chinese currency policy to the dangers of loose monetary policy and protectionist tendencies in the U.S."

White House officials say they got what they came for — the beginning of a needed give-and-take with a surging economic giant. With a civilization as ancient as China's, they argued, it would be counterproductive — and reminiscent of President George W. Bush's style — for Obama to confront Beijing with loud chest-beating that might alienate the Chinese. Obama, the officials insisted, had made his points during private meetings.

"I do not expect, and I can speak authoritatively for the president on this, that we thought the waters would part and everything would change over the course of our almost 2 1/2-day trip to China," said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman. "We understand there's a lot of work to do."

Several China experts noted that Obama was not leaving Beijing empty-handed. The two countries put out a five-point joint statement pledging to work together on a variety of issues. The statement calls for regular exchanges between Obama and Hu and asks that each side pay more attention to the strategic concerns of the other. The statement also pledges that they will work as partners on economic issues, Iran and climate change.

But despite a conciliatory tone that began weeks ago when Obama declined to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, before visiting China to avoid offending China's leaders, it remains unclear whether Obama made progress on the most pressing policy matters on the American agenda in China or elsewhere in Asia.

The president has had to fend off criticism from American conservatives that he appeared to soften the American stance on the positioning of troops on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and for bowing to Japan's emperor.

At a regional conference in Singapore, Obama announced a setback on another top foreign policy priority, climate change, acknowledging that comprehensive agreement to fight global warming was no longer within reach this year.

Past American presidents have usually insisted in advance on some concrete achievements from their trips overseas. Bush received vigorous endorsements of his top foreign policy priority, the global war on terrorism, during his visits to Beijing, and President Bill Clinton guided China toward joining the World Trade Organization after prolonged negotiations.

This time, Hu declined to follow the lead of President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, who, after months of massaging by the Obama administration, now says he is open to tougher sanctions against Iran if negotiations fail to curb Iran's nuclear program. The administration needs China's support if tougher sanctions are to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. But during the joint appearance in Beijing on Tuesday, Hu didn't mention of sanctions.

Obama did not appear to move the Chinese on currency issues, either. China has come under heavy pressure, not only from the United States but also from Europe and several Asian countries, to revise its policy of keeping its currency, the renminbi, pegged at an artificially low value against the dollar to help promote its exports. Some economists say China must take that step to prevent the return of large trade and financial imbalances that may have contributed to the recent financial crisis.

Obama on Tuesday could only cite China's "past statements" in support of shifting toward market-oriented exchange rates, implying that he had not extracted a fresh commitment from Beijing to move in that direction soon.

There are many reasons the White House may have heeded China's clear desire for a visit free of the polemics that often accompany meetings between leaders of the two countries. Obama's foreign policy is rooted in recasting the United States as a thoughtful listener to friends and rivals alike.

"No we haven't made China a democracy in three days — maybe if we pounded our chest a lot that would work," Gibbs said in an e-mail message on Tuesday night. "But it hasn't in the last 16 years."

Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw China issues in Clinton's White House, agreed. "The United States actually has enormous influence on popular thinking in China, but it is primarily by example," he said.

The National Security Council's spokesman, Michael A. Hammer, added, "What we did come to do is speak bluntly about the issues which are important to us, not in an unnecessarily offensive manner, but rather in the Obama style of showing respect."

Obama, even as he projected a softer image, did nudge the Chinese on some delicate issues.

On Tuesday, standing next to Hu, Obama brought up Tibet, where Beijing-backed authorities have clamped down on religious freedom. "While we recognize that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China, the United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have," he said.

Obama in Asia

President Obama attended a state dinner hosted by President Hu in his honor Tuesday night, the major social event of his eight-day swing through Asia. Obama was even serenaded by the People's Liberation Army. The military band played some American tunes, including We Are the World, In the Mood and I Just Called to Say I Love You. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and the rest of the delegation dined on Chinese-style steak, stir-fried wild rice, roast grouper and ice cream.

Today, Obama will meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and visit the Great Wall.

Obama in Asia

President Obama attended a state dinner hosted by President Hu in his honor Tuesday night, the major social event of his eight-day swing through Asia. Obama was even serenaded by the People's Liberation Army. The military band played some American tunes, including We Are the World, In the Mood and I Just Called to Say I Love You. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and the rest of the delegation dined on Chinese-style steak, stir-fried wild rice, roast grouper and ice cream.

Today, Obama will meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and visit the Great Wall.

Obama finds China at ease with saying no to the U.S. 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 11:06pm]

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