It is sometimes said Democrats know nothing about Asia and prefer to swan around with Europeans. Yet less than six months after his trip to North-East Asia (and just as the White House announces that he will miss a forthcoming European summit) Barack Obama is returning to our neighbourhood. His visit tells us his rhetoric about being a “Pacific president” was no throwaway line.
Perhaps the most important issue Obama will discuss with Kevin Rudd will be relations with China.
The Rudd government has received a fair amount of criticism for its stewardship of the China relationship, but most of the problems that have cropped up – including the Stern Hu and Rebiya Kadeer imbroglios – originated on the Chinese side of the fence.
These kinds of stresses and strains are also finding expression in China’s other international relationships, including its all-important connection with the United States.
It has been customary in the past couple of decades for US-China relations to get off to a rocky start under each new president, before finding their groove after a year or two. Bill Clinton came to office vowing to lead “an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing” and promising to withhold China’s most-favoured-nation trading status until it had improved its human rights record. Pretty soon, however, Clinton became a forceful advocate of engagement.
The hawks in George W. Bush’s administration were intent on confronting Beijing until the spy plane drama in April 2001 demonstrated the limits of American influence. After the September 11 attacks later that year, the bilateral relationship went into a state of suspended animation: while the Americans were looking towards West Asia, the Chinese expanded their wealth and influence in East Asia.
This time, however, events seem to be moving in the opposite direction. During the 2008 election campaign, Obama seemed less concerned than his opponent, John McCain, about the regional distribution of power, less focused on allies and keener to engage Beijing on the great global issues of the day. Once elected, he proposed to “deepen” the bilateral relationship and his officials spoke of “strategic reassurance”.
After endless entreaties from the Chinese, he declined to meet the Dalai Lama before his first official visit to China last November. These steps made sense. After all, the US needs China on a range of questions, including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, climate change and international economics. In light of their history, the Chinese are sensitive to slights and resistant to diktats, so it is worthwhile to try to get them on board as partners.
But rather than reaching out to Obama, China has pushed back. Beijing has refused to help out in meaningful ways on Iran. It stage-managed Obama’s visit to China in a way that minimised Obama’s effect on the Chinese audience and complicated things for him with the American audience.
In Copenhagen, China refused to give ground on the principle of international monitoring of emissions reductions, which helped prevent a meaningful agreement. It also actively undermined Obama, dodging meetings and sometimes sending a relatively junior official to represent the Premier, Wen Jiabao.
One wonders what would have been the Chinese reaction to such behaviour had the positions been reversed. China is not, in other words, nurturing the international system it aspires to help lead. It is doing no favours for the most powerful man in the world.
These developments have caused a good deal of frustration in Washington and have made policy makers more sceptical of the benefits of such proactive engagement. The tone of US dealings with China appears to be toughening. Washington has announced that a long-planned $US6.4 billion ($A7.12 billion) arms sale to Taiwan will proceed, although without some of the kit Taipei wanted.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave a strong speech in reaction to the brouhaha between Google and China. Last week, Obama met the Dalai Lama at the White House. After years of playing a skilled diplomatic game, China may have overreached a little.
Increased heat in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing is not a good thing for the two parties, and certainly not for Australia. Tensions over trade and security disputes are not to be welcomed. A prosperous and secure China is in everyone’s interest.
Yet harmonious relations require effort on both sides. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has looked to the US to solve global problems and provide public goods. With China’s new-found power, however, comes greater responsibilities and increased scrutiny.
Increasingly, Australia and the rest of the world will look to Beijing as well as Washington to invest effort in their bilateral relationship, and to take decisions which protect the planet and the international system.