Op-Ed

The Scouting Report Web Chat: Previewing President Obama’s First Trip to China

Kenneth G. Lieberthal

China’s continued ascension presents policy challenges for both Beijing and Washington. President Barack Obama will make his first trip to China from November 15-18, where he will address a multitude of issues ranging from climate change to trade and the economy to military ties between the two nations.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings expert and director of the John L. Thornton China Center, who served as a special assistant to the president for national security and senior director for Asia at the White House National Security Council from 1998 through 2000, and Senior Politico Editor Fred Barbash, took questions about the president’s trip in this edition of the Scouting Report.

The transcript of this chat follows:

12:30 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Kenneth Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings. He’s with us here today to take questions on the president’s upcoming trip to China. Thanks so much for being here and thanks to all our readers.

Let’s get started.

12:30 [Comment From Jason:] What does President Obama hope to accomplish in China?

12:31 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: President Obama will seek to address three major global issues with the Chinese: the global economic crisis, the linked issues of clean energy and climate change, and the broad issue of nuclear proliferation, touching on North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere. He also will be seeking to introduce himself personally to a large Chinese audience.

12:32 [Comment From Sean Sullivan (NHK):] To what extent do you expect human rights to come up during the visit? How out in front is Obama expected to be on that issue?

12:33 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Human rights undoubtedly will be addressed, but President Obama’s style in general is to seek to be effective by raising such issues in private and not humiliating the other leader(s) in public. Very likely reporters’ questions will elicit some comments on this, therefore, but it is unlikely to be a key part of Obama’s public statements and US framing of the visit.

12:33 [Comment From Kenneth:] Do you think that China is manipulating their currency? And, if so, what effect does that have?

12:35 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: China controls the exchange rate between its RMB and the US dollar. But it does so in a consistent way — generally, the RMB rises and falls with he value of the dollar. This is considered as pegging the RMB to the dollar, but not as “manipulating” the value of the RMB as a matter of US law. It in effect produces an undervalued RMB as of now, but it also means that US policy largely determines the value of the RMB (by influencing the international value of the USD).

12:35 [Comment From David Castrillon: ] Thank you for holding this very important discussion, Dr. Lieberthal. Now, you said that President Obama would be introducing himself to a large Chinese audience. Could you elaborate on these planned meetings with the Chinese public?

12:36 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The specific meetings are still being worked out. But I believe there will be a potentially large public event the first day of the visit in Shanghai, and it may be focused on a younger audience. I expect the president to have one or more press availabilities. And there may be some public event in Beijing.

12:36 [Comment From Gary:] How can the US and China cooperate on climate change?

12:36 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Bilaterally, we have complementary capabilities in many areas of clean energy. Clean energy cooperation to develop, test, scale up, and make commercially viable green technologies would be a major contribution toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Multilaterally, demonstrating that both countries take greenhouse gas emission reductions seriously and that we are prepared to work together on this can have a very positive impact on the global negotiations.

12:36 [Comment From Erin: ] Why are China’s emissions growing so rapidly?

12:37 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: About 15 million Chinese a year move from rural to urban areas. That is, every month the Chinese have to add infrastructure sufficient, essentially, to provide for a new city of poor residents of 1.25 million people. The US has only nine cities with a population of a million or more. Their infrastructure requirements for housing, roads, health facilities, schools power plants, etc. are daunting. This rate of urbanization is likely to continue for more than another decade. That means that demands for steel, cement, aluminum, petrochemicals, and power generation will continue to grow, and that drives greenhouse gas emissions.

12:37 [Comment From Rebecca:] How can US-China cooperation on climate change help promote success at Copenhagen?

12:39 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The demonstration effect — that the world two largest greenhouse gas emitters, both of whom have been seen to date as laggards in addressing this issue — can now engage in active cooperation should increase the optimism that this problem can be addressed successfully and that industrialized and developing countries can find ways to cooperate on it.

12:39 [Comment From Dave: ] Do you think China’s strong influence in Northeast Asia is a good influence or a bad one?

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12:41 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: It is hard to determine whether it is good or bad — it is a growing reality with which the US must deal effectively. North Korea — where China opposes the North’s nuclear development but also fears a North Korean collapse that might result from too much pressure — highlights the various dimensions of China’s growing influence. China has been helpful in leading the Six Party Talks but has not been a tough enforcer of UN sanctions.

12:41 [Comment From Tomohiro Deguchi (Kyodo):] Good afternoon. Do you expect Obama and Hu will come up with tougher stance on North Korea?

12:41 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: I think the positions of both countries on North Korea are pretty clear and there will not be significant change evident in the upcoming summit in Beijing.

12:41 [Comment From Melanie:] In what way is China willing to show they take GHG seriously?

12:43 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: China has been demonstrating its seriousness in both the laws/regulations it has adopted and in the money it is investing in efforts to reduce GHG emissions. Both of these are real and substantial, and the resulting activities are observable on the ground. They are driven in part by the conclusion of Chinese scientists that China is one of the countries likely to suffer the greatest losses from climate change. China’s leaders have clearly accepted this conclusion and are starting to act seriously on it.

12:43 [Comment From Seth: ] How much of a concern is China’s militarization?

12:46 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: China’s military is continuously and significantly enhancing its capabilities. That is pretty much to be expected with a country whose global weight — and global involvements — are growing. The real issues are China’s intentions in both military development and the potential use of military force. To date, China’s use of military force in its foreign policy has been very modest (almost no members of the Chinese military have actual combat experience), but it will require a combination of monitoring, engagement and efforts to develop mutual understandings and interests (over, for example, countering nontraditional security threats) to increase the likelihood that China’s ongoing military growth will not become a threat to the interests of America and/or our friends and allies.

12:46 [Comment From John:] Do you think President Obama will provide further elaboration on the “strategic reassurance” idea that Deputy Secretary Steinberg laid out?

12:47 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: It is worth watching to see whether President Obama uses the term “strategic reassurance” during his visit to China. If so, he almost certainly will be asked to characterize it. At this point it is not completely clear exactly what the term means and also how the Chinese view it.

12:47 [Comment From Guoyou (shanghai):] Could you tell us what the main concerns for President Obama towards China? And you know, trade issue is becoming a major problem between the countries, which country should be more responsible for such situation? Thank you.

12:49 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: President Obama takes a very pragmatic approach to China. He recognizes that most major issues will be easier to manage if the US and China do not act at cross purposes on them (or even are able actively to cooperate on them) and that it is therefore worth trying to increase the capacity of each country to engage constructively with the other. On the upcoming trip, the issues of economic relations, clean energy cooperation, and nuclear proliferation (especially, North Korea and Iran) will be particularly important.

12:51 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: On the trade side, both countries face growing protectionist pressures domestically, and both have adopted some protectionist responses. The American side has done so somewhat more publicly, while on the Chinese side a lot of the protectionism has taken the form of complex regulations and provincial level restrictions. Neither side is “predominantly” at fault — and both leaderships need to have the political courage to keep these pressures under control even during this present time of economic distress.

12:51 [Comment From Jane:] What’s the key message that Obama could send to the Chinese during his first visit?

12:53 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: That the US regards China as a major country with whom it is important to find ways to work constructively on both bilateral and global issues. This requires that each side be candid about its perspectives and interests, sensitive to the other side’s views, and mindful that the biggest ongoing failure in our relationship is the ongoing mutual distrust about each other’s long term intentions in the relationship.

12:54 [Comment From Satoshi OGawa(Yomiuri): ] Although the Obama administration still defines the US-Japan alliance as being the cornerstone of their Asian diplomacy, dealing with the new DPJ government has put a strain on the relationship. Meanwhile, US-Chinese relations are thriving on a more cooperative note. Given these new circumstances, I am wondering if the US view to the two countries might be changed. How would you estimate that? Besides, how does China see the current US-Japan relations?

12:56 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The US-Japan relationship is one between democratic allies. The US-China relationship is far from an alliance and does not bring together two democracies. These two relationships, therefore, remain very different in quality. At a time of crisis, the US will obviously be looking to see where active cooperation can be developed to address key problems. It is likely to seek this pragmatically with both Japan and China, although the specific agendas and modalities obviously will differ. Everyone is watching with great interest as the Hatoyama government sorts out its priorities and begins to develop its operational positions on key issues of concern to the US.

12:56 [Comment From Seth: ] How much tension is there in US policy making circles between those who see China as a competitor and those who see China as a partner? Are either of these apt characterizations for the relationship?

12:58 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: China is in some areas a competitor with the US and in other areas very much a constructive partner. There are spheres in which it is both at the same time. There is not a great deal of tension within the USG on this issue. While various officials may have different views, the reality is that what officials recommend is more determined by US policy objectives and their own particular responsibilities within the government.

12:58 [Comment From David Castrillon: ] Will other meetings be taking place at the ministerial level? Thank you for your answers!

12:59 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: I believe so. For example, Energy Secretary Chu is traveling with the President to Beijing.

12:59 [Comment From Tom: ] What about the fear that China will suddenly call in the debts we’ve run up with them? Do you see that as likely? And how much leverage does our budget deficit really give the Chinese?

1:02 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Good question. The large Chinese loans to the US very likely make us less likely to go out of our way to trash the relationship with our major creditor, especially at a time of very high ongoing budget deficits. But the Chinese cannot significantly exit from their USD holdings in a short period of time. They are in a dollar trap — that is, they hold so many dollars that moving enough money to any other currency would actually, in the process of making the trade, drive up significantly the cost of the other currency. Bringing the money back to China and converting the dollars to RMB would flood China with liquidity and risk large scale inflation. Thus, China will try over time to reduce its extraordinary investment in US dollars, but this will be gradual and they do not have a real option to move precipitously on this issue.

1:02 [Comment From Donghui Yu(China Press): ] How to improve the long-term mutual trust between the two countries ? Do you think President Obama could possibly lift the relationship to a higher strategic level?

1:05 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The biggest single failing in 30 years of US-China diplomatic relations is the failure to build mutual trust over each other’s long term intentions in the relationship. That mistrust goes in both directions. If we can now begin to develop a path toward serious cooperation on major global issues, that should begin to erode that distrust. This is especially true on the issue of clean energy, as this issue goes to the heart of each society and economy, will continue to be highly salient for many decades, and involves people far beyond the usual foreign policy, trade, and security types that normally engage each other. Obama’s trip is very usefully seen in terms of this larger framework, and his agenda reflects this framing.

1:05 [Comment From Rachel: ] Has China made legitimate efforts to bring carbon emissions under control?

1:06 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Yes. It has pursued a serious program to improve energy efficiency per unit of GDP, has adopted mandates in renewable energy, has adopted higher mileage standards than is the case in the US fleet, and is taking many other measures. Given China’s rapid urbanization and other factors, none of this means that Chinese emissions will actually peak soon. But these measures are increasingly reducing the growth of Chinese emissions below what they would otherwise have been.

1:06 [Comment From Lin: ] How about the Taiwan issue? Is Taiwan still an issue between the US-China relationship? How will the Taiwan issue weigh in the US-China talks comparing to the time of President Clinton and President Bush’s presidency?

1:09 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The cross-Strait issue is in overall better shape than it has been in for a very long time, and the trends are toward ongoing improvement in cross-Strait relations. But it remains a very important issue, not least because the chances of future military conflict across the Strait have not been eliminated. China remains adamantly opposed to additional US arms sales to Taiwan, but China has not reduced its own military capabilities to menace Taiwan. I expect this issue to be raised in the summit meeting (it always is) but not to be an issue either side dwells on. The summit should not produce any real news related to the Taiwan issue.

1:09 [Comment From David Castrillon: ] How will opposition groups in China react to President Obama’s visit? Can we expect protests or demonstrations in Xinjiang or Tibet?

1:09 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The main reason not to expect major protests in Xinjiang or Tibet is because of the security measures Beijing is taking to make sure such protests do not occur.

1:10 [Comment From Jane: ] Will the US and China build strategic partnerships with each other in the near future? How close they could be?

1:12 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The US-China relationship is increasingly focusing on issues of strategic importance (global economics and finance, clean energy and climate change, nuclear weapons), and in each of these both sides seem to be seeking ways to work out pragmatic cooperation and to reduce tensions. This does not amount to a “strategic partnership” in a rigorous sense of that term, but on important issues there is a possibility that we will have more effective ties than we have had in the past.

1:12 [Comment From Carl: ] What about Tibet? That issue seemed to boil over in the world during the Olympics. Is the U.S. ever going to broach that as an issue with China?

1:14 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: China frequently raises the Tibet issue with the US, and we do not hesitate to state our views. Those views, in short, are: we regard Tibet as a part of China; we regard the Dalai Lama first and foremost as a religious figure, and China should recognize that the whole world outside of China adopts that view, too; and China’s best hope for reduced tensions in Tibet is to work out an arrangement that will allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet as a religious and cultural figure of great authority.

1:15 [Comment From Satoshi Ogawa(Yomiuri): ] Will the President Obama ask Chinese leaders to reduce nuclear weapons? If not, why?

1:16 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The president seeks as a long term goal the zero option — the elimination of nuclear weapons from everyone’s arsenals. China’s leaders are well aware of that. But this trip is likely to focus on the more immediate nuclear questions involving North Korea and Iran (and Pakistan, too).

1:16 [Comment From John: ] What will the Chinese side be looking for from Obama’s visit?

1:18 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The concrete issues are the ones I’ve indicated in previous answers. More broadly, China will be very sensitive to how Obama talks about China and the types of initiatives he wants to develop with Beijing. Typically, the Chinese side allows the foreign side to define most of the agenda, and China then reacts to things that are raised. China will want to both hear US views and convey strongly China’s views on managing the global economy, on economic protectionism, on clean energy and climate change, and on the North Korean and Iran issues.

1:18 [Comment From Seth: ] What is your response to those who say the global economic crises has redefined the way we should think of national sovereignty? In other words, the US cannot act in certain situations without thinking of China and vice-versa.

1:19 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: I think the global economic crisis has made more visible and concrete the type of change you refer to, which has in fact been going on for some years.

1:19 [Comment From Jane: ] Some people are saying that the Chinese know much more about the US than the Americans about China. What do you think of that? Do you think that the Americans should be more open-minded about the rising China?

1:23 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: The US has for a long time been far more consequential to China than China has been to the US. In addition, far more Chinese have come to study in the US than has been the case in the other direction. That said, the level or real understanding of each other’s political and social systems remains very low in both countries. That in part simply reflects the reality that each is a continental-sized country, which has its own repercussions. We certainly need to think through more clearly as a country the potential pluses and minuses of China’s rise and how to adopt policies that on balance increase the up side. That in part requires that we also address our own path forward in many domestic as well as foreign policy areas. Finally, it is important for Americans to contemplate the types of problems we will have if China should dramatically stumble. My own view is that, on balance, we are better off with China ongoing development — albeit with a constructive relationship with the international arena including America — than we would be with a China that proves unable to manage its internal stresses.

1:23 [Comment From Kenneth: ] Is China OK with the “Buy American” provision of the stimulus act?

1:24 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: They don’t like it, but they understand it. They want it applied loosely. They recognize that they effectively have used a similar approach.

1:24 [Comment From Matthew: ] Is the U.S. going to try to get China to cooperate on sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program?

1:24 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Yes.

1:25 [Comment From David Castrillon: ] What is it that you look forward to the most about this meeting? Are there any signs of interest that you are particularly looking for?

1:26 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: I believe the clean energy issue is the one with the greatest potential long-term consequences. I therefore am particularly looking for indications that both sides have become committed to significant cooperation on clean energy development and have figured out ways to begin to make that work on a substantial scale.

1:26 [Comment From Matthew: ] Any chance China will cooperate with the U.S. on supporting those sanctions?

1:28 Kenneth G. Lieberthal: Beijing generally thinks sanctions are either unproductive or counterproductive, and seriously strengthened sanctions against Iran will have complicated ripple effects in the region. But China also hates to be isolated on a major international issue. The path to Chinese cooperation on Iran sanctions may, therefore, go through Moscow.

1:28 Fred Barbash: That’s about all the time we have for today. Thanks everyone for your great questions, and sorry we couldn’t get to them all.

1:28 Fred Barbash: Thanks for your time today, Kenneth. This was great.

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