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How Credible Is Obama?- Chinese Musings On Eve Of His Visit

President Barack Obama is undertaking a four-nation Asia trip from November 12 to 19, 2009.He will be in Japan on November 12-13. From there, he will fly to Singapore to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and then visit China and South Korea before returning to the US.

2. As his visit to China approaches, the Chinese media have been carrying an increasing number of articles on his personality, his policies, the developing Sino-US relations and China’s relations with the rest of the world.

3. A perusal of the writings would show that India is not the only country where there are lots of nostalgic memories of his predecessor George Bush. Even in China, there are analysts who are more positive on Bush in retrospect than on Obama. They view Obama essentially as a man of “pretty words” not matched by appropriate action. They still remember with gratitude how Bush firmly opposed calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics since he felt that such a boycott would humiliate the Chinese people.

4. Attention has been drawn to the fact that no other US President has undertaken so many foreign visits in his first year in office as Obama has and delivered so many beautiful orations. Have these visits and orations contributed to a better perception and understanding of the US in the rest of the world? The Chinese analysts are not sure of this.

5. The growing skepticism about Obama is reflected in an article titled “Obama needs deeds, not just pretty words” written in the “Global Times” of November 8, 2009, by Tian Wei, a Chinese TV anchor, who was posted in Washington DC during the first term of Bush and who now hosts on the Chinese TV a talk show called “Dialogue” . 6. She writes: “Obama deserves enormous credit for making the political choice to take the time to do his Asia trip. He is not like his predecessor Bill Clinton, who skipped two Asian summits because of domestic political challenges. Obviously, Obama is not coming to Asia to show off American strength this time, as her weaknesses are currently much more apparent. Rather he seems to believe it is essential to restore American leadership and solve the problems by involving others in the process as well. With this trip to Asia, Obama will have visited 20 countries in his first year in office, the most of any US President in history. This is certainly a great record by itself. But what is more important is not just his sincerity but also his credibility. People naturally compare former US President George W. Bush and Obama. Even though the latter can be more eloquent in delivery, the former, once he said he was going to do something, no matter how difficult it was, followed through. For example, when former President George W. Bush said he was going to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, he did despite a great deal of pressure not to do so. When Bush made clear in the White House when meeting with his Chinese counterpart President Hu Jintao that Washington was against the change of status quo from either side of the Taiwan Straits, he followed through by making this clear to Chen Shui-bian, then Taiwan leader. We can also consider the domestic situation facing the Obama administration. Despite rhetoric against protectionism, the White House did sign a bill limiting the imports of Chinese tires for the protection of a minor interest group, the United Auto Workers. We have to wonder if this administration still has enough political capital to move forward on some of the crucial issues for the international community? Even if there is enough political capital, is it willing to invest? Is the US Congress finally going to give it the authority to move forward? Many believe that the nature of relations between Beijing and Washington has been changing over the years, and has now reached a truly global level over issues like climate change and the financial crisis. As the nature of the relationship evolves, it is especially crucial for the Obama administration to show its credibility if it wants the Chinese or others in Asia to step up.”

7. Another interesting discussion in sections of the media has been on the continuing distrust of China in the civil societies of many countries. China’s relations with Russia have been described as one of “hot governmental relations” and “cold non-governmental relations.” However much the two Governments might have strengthened the State-to-State relations, distrust at the people-to-people level due to historic reasons continues to persist. China has not been able to remove this distrust.

8. Though the Russian and Chinese people’s perceptions of each other have been cited as an example of the negative people-to-people relations, this applies with equal validity to China’s relations with India, the US and many South-East and East Asian countries. As I had pointed out in my past articles on Sino-Indian relations, persisting distrust of China in large sections of the Indian civil society stands in the way of any substantial improvement in the bilateral relations despite the keenness of the two Governments to strengthen the strategic relations.

9. In an article titled ” Balance of Powers in Asia Inevitable” written by Ding Gang, who has been described as ” a senior editor with the People’s Daily” ( “Global Times” of November 8,2009), the concerns and suspicions aroused in Asia by China’s rise as a major power have been sought to be analysed in an objective manner. These suspicions and concerns are behind the desire of many countries, including Singapore, that the US should continue to play an active role in Asia.

10. The article says: “It is an open secret that many Asian countries want to restrict China’s rise with the help of the US. In a recent speech by Singaporean founder and “Minister Mentor” Lee Kuan Yew on the Charlie Rose show in the US, he warned that the US risks losing global leadership as China rises militarily and economically. This made some Chinese netizens very unhappy, since Lee’s reliance on the US as the leading power seemed to disregard the feelings of the Chinese people. However, given the current status of the Asia-Pacific region, it is easy to understand Lee’s concern. Nowadays the Asia-Pacific region is seeking a new balance of political and economic structures, a shared goal for all Asia-Pacific countries after the Cold War. Who needs to be “balanced?” Frankly speaking, the target is China. No matter what China thinks, its rise brings changes to the original balance of the Asia-Pacific region. It is not a small challenge for any Asia-Pacific country to deal with a rapidly growing power. Accordingly, their concern of loss of possible national interests is understandable.”

11.It adds: ” There has never been a common security mechanism for consultation and cooperation established by Asian countries. During the Cold War, a number of Asian countries were allied to the US in order to restrict the Soviet Union and China. The US was, is and will, in the foreseeable future, be the dominant force in the region. Despite the relative decline in its power, it is still far from becoming a second-class country. Therefore, that some Asia- Pacific countries want to rely on the US to balance China’s growing strength is entirely natural. To lead Asian affairs is not among China’s goals, even if China becomes the strongest power in Asia. Being a leader is not aligned with China’s philosophy, and it is not considered a favorable choice. Instead, Asia needs a new security structure based on consultation and cooperation. Its order cannot rely on a single leader, and no such leader will exist in the future. Therefore, maintaining a balance of power in Asia is not bad for China. …… For us to get along with other Asian countries in the future, we have to understand their concerns. The Chinese people should also have patience. China is not strong and popular enough to make other countries neglect the US. Even if in the future China enhances mutual trust with other Asia-Pacific countries through continuous efforts, a balance of power may still be necessary. For the gradual development of a multipolar world, the best solution is to keep this balance. China needs to learn to adapt to this reality in order to be a responsible major power.”

12. There is thus an interesting debate going on between the advocates of a “China first” policy who insist on a firm assertion of what they look upon as China’s core interests even at the risk of driving some Asian countries into the arms of the US and those who recognise the continuing reality of a distrust of China and want that China should take note of this distrust and address the causes for it. They look upon the attempts of some countries to strengthen their relations with the US as not the reflection of an anti-China conspiracy, but as the natural outcome of the distrust of China.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-Mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )

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