Assessing Obama's China Trip

President Obama, in his first trip to China as president, met Wednesday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Harry Harding, dean of the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, discusses what the China visit say about U.S.-China relations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We have just passed a landmark in the most important international relationship in the world: Barack Obama's first presidential visit to China. He met today with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, made a sightseeing trip to the Great Wall, then he left for South Korea.

Together the U.S. and China buy and sell to each other and borrow and lend from each other on a colossal scale. They are both great Pacific powers and they also both pollute like no two other countries in the world. So, what did the China visit say, if anything, about U.S.-China relations?

Well, joining us is Harry Harding, dean of the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He's the author of several books on China. Welcome to the program.

Dr. HARRY HARDING (Dean, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia): Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: Has anything happened or changed in U.S.-China relations on this trip?

Dr. HARDING: I think that the trip shows several things. First of all, this is a more stable and routine relationship. We don't expect big breakthroughs any longer in this kind of a summit meeting. The presidents meet all the time now, talk on the phone. Secondly, it has a much broader scope than it ever did before, dealing not only with bilateral issues, but with functional issues like climate change and of course a variety of global and regional issues like Iran and North Korea.

But I think what everybody is seeing is that there is a shift in the balance of power between the two countries. The Chinese were in some ways pushing back on a number of issues important to them. Mr. Obama seemed to be sort of almost holding back on his punches, pulling his punches on some issues. And in general, you have a sense that, at least from the Chinese perspective, they're getting stronger and the United States is leveling off and maybe even in some ways getting weaker.

SIEGEL: I'd like to read to you something that The Washington Post had on a front page news analysis today. They contrasted this visit with President Bill Clinton's visit in 1998, when they write, Clinton stood before television cameras in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. The U.S. owed more money to Spain than to China then and did more than twice as much trade with Mexico. At a freewheeling news conference, Clinton criticized China's military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. And they contrast that with the Obama visit and the very tamed Chinese style news conference that he took part in.

Dr. HARDING: That's absolutely right. The news conference was basically two parallel statements by the two presidents, no questions were taken. We don't want to exaggerate this. The president did talk about human rights in that press conference statement. He talked about human rights also in the town hall meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai.

But I think it's more the overall framing of the relationship. We have these adjectives that we use to describe where we welcome China going. And this one this time did not say anything about China's internal system of governance. We often in the past talked about a democratic China or a humanely governed China, nothing like that anymore.

And, in fact, there was some language where both sides said that they agreed on the principle that every country in today's world should chart its own course, which, again, implies that the Chinese are not accepting that they have any obligation to follow any norms or models that the United States might advocate for them.

SIEGEL: And that is in recognition not so much of the military might of a superpower, as the fact that they hold our notes.

Dr. HARDING: Yeah, to some degree. That's absolutely right. We are, however, in a mutually dependent relationship. It's not all one-sided. It's true that they hold a lot of our treasuries, but if those treasuries lose their value, that means the Chinese holdings lose their value. If they - what some are calling the equivalent of the Cold War in financial terms, mutual assured destruction.

So, it's not as one-sidedly in China's favor as you might think. But it's clear that overall, if we look at overall Chinese comprehensive national power, it's been rising. Whereas the United States, of course, has these huge domestic obligations, its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is a common perception, therefore, that the balance of power is shifting.

SIEGEL: Dean Harding, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Dr. HARDING: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Harry Harding, who is the dean of the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He spoke to us from Charlottesville, Virginia.

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