On his first official visit to Asia, President Obama has sought to reassure China that the United States does not want to contain its rise, but rather welcomes “a strong and prosperous ... member of the community of nations.” He also has said that world power status brings with it the responsibility of engagement in international affairs, “a burden of leadership that both our countries now carry.” Such talk raises the hackles of conservatives at home who see global power as a zero-sum game and believe Obama is ceding too much to China.
We disagree. The United States can acknowledge China’s economic and political clout in a multipolar world without sacrificing its own leadership role in the region. The truth is that few issues these days, from Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions to climate change and global economic recovery, can be addressed successfully without the participation of China.
The United States and China have points of contention and common interests, particularly regarding the economy. China is holding about $800 billion in U.S. debt, and its authoritarian state capitalism is likely to produce 8% growth in 2009, while the liberal democratic U.S. economy will be lucky to grow by 1%. As a result, commentators have made the case that Obama is in no position to lecture Beijing about its overvalued currency, let alone its checkered human rights record. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the communist leadership has rarely responded to finger-wagging, the economic relationship is more nuanced than that. China questions the cost of U.S. healthcare reform and is cautioning the United States as never before about the soaring budget deficit and weak dollar, not only because it is feeling its economic oats but because it fears for the value of its U.S. investments. When China protests U.S. protectionism, that is because its own growth depends on exports to the West and, therefore, so does its social peace. For better and worse, the two economies are interdependent, and that reinforces U.S. power.
Obama has spoken out selectively on human rights issues so far on the trip. He has avoided mentioning the mistreatment of Tibetans or the status of Taiwan, which we hope he will address in his private meeting with President Hu Jintao today. At least he spoke forcefully against Internet censorship, telling Shanghai university students it is a “universal right” to have freedom of “expression and worship, or access to information and political participation.” The U.S. and China surely will face many political, economic and possibly military challenges in the future. It would be best if they resolve them through a dialogue -- one global power to another.