New steps in the Sino-American dance
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Finally, 11 days after taking his place in the White House, United
States President Barack Obama made a telephone call to Chinese President Hu
Jintao. Both sides have given different versions of the conversation, but one
thing they agreed on was that neither man mentioned "currency manipulation",
the charge made against China by newly installed US Treasury Secretary Timothy
Geithner during his confirmation hearings before the US Senate's Finance
Predictably, Beijing reacted to the allegation with righteous indignation,
after which Vice President Joe Biden was quick to temper Geithner's words with
remarks of his own. Add to that the president's choice to ignore the currency
flap in his first presidential call to Beijing and it appears that the
relationship under the Obama administration is off to an awkward, ambiguous
While anti-China rhetoric may play well in the US Congress and with an American
populace seeking a bogeyman for the economic hard times that have befallen the
country, Chinese analysts regard this initial fumbling as a sign of Obama's
naivete and inexperience in foreign affairs. They point to Premier Wen Jiabao's
recently completed European "tour of confidence" as a superior example of
diplomacy that the Obama team would do well to observe and emulate.
During his week in Europe, Wen, despite being denounced as a "dictator" and
having a shoe tossed at him by a protestor during a speech he made at Britain's
Cambridge University, succeeded in strengthening trade ties, mending diplomatic
fences damaged during the Tibet riots last March, and dropping lots of
reassuring messages about the stability of the Chinese economy.
In the end, awkward as it was, the shoe-throwing incident was seen as a copycat
crime (after then-president George W Bush famously ducked two flying shoes
during a Baghdad press conference in December) and Wen's European trip has been
generally regarded as a successful example of a more sophisticated and mature
style of Chinese diplomacy.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, before his arrival
in Britain, Wen clearly put the blame for the global economic meltdown at the
doorstep of the US, although he did not name names, instead choosing the
oblique language of diplomacy. The premier said that an "unsustainable model of
development" based on low savings, high consumption and a "blind pursuit of
profit" had played a big part in prompting the crisis. He warned against the
dangers of protectionism and called for a new morality in the global economic
In addition to Switzerland and Britain, Wen's tour included stops in Spain,
Germany and Belgium (home of the headquarters of the European Union). France
was snubbed because of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conspicuous support
of the Dalai Lama, as well as his threat to boycott the opening ceremony of the
Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, last August. Throughout his trip, Wen was
engaging and statesmanlike and made a point of meeting the press, notably in
London, where he submitted to an extensive interview with the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, the fledgling Obama administration was off to a bumbling start with
During the eight years of the Bush administration, no charges of currency
manipulation were ever made, even though American economists estimated that the
yuan was being undervalued by as much as 40%. Bush also soft-pedaled on human
rights and embraced Beijing as an Olympic host. Partly in response, China has
allowed the yuan to rise 21% against the dollar since 2005.
For the Chinese leadership, the Bush presidency - particularly during its final
two-and-a-half years, when Henry Paulson served as treasury chief - was
generally predictable and cooperative. These leaders would like to see
Sino-American relations take on a similar hue once Obama finds his diplomatic
What is seen in Beijing as naivete and fumbling, however, may be the tentative
start of a more contentious relationship. Under Bush, Paulson's economic agenda
dominated Sino-US affairs; under Obama, despite an economic downturn that has
left the US vulnerable, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to move
front and center, and she has promised to engage Beijing on all fronts,
including human rights, the status of Tibet and Taiwan.
The world will soon see how these pledges play out as Clinton reportedly will
embark on a trip to East Asia, including a stop in China, as early as next
week. This visit, her first trip abroad in her new role, underscores the
importance of the region in American eyes and will provide a crucial early test
of Clinton's mettle and the Obama administration's stance toward China.
Following Geithner's ill-advised remarks, how will the economic dialogue
proceed? Perhaps more importantly, will Clinton make a point of departing from
Bush administration policy to address more forcefully Western concerns about
human rights? That's what she said she would do. Now will she do it?
Obama's first moves toward Beijing may have been missteps, but this clumsy
beginning could soon transform into a whole new dance that has everyone
stepping differently. For Beijing, this would be an unwelcome scenario,
especially in light of the political challenges the leadership must confront in
a calendar year marked by sensitive anniversaries. In March, for example,
Tibetans will note the 50th anniversary of their failed uprising against
Chinese rule, which prompted the Dalai Lama's flight to exile in India. The
20th anniversary of the bloody June 4th Tiananmen Square crackdown on the
student-led democracy movement also looms. In addition, on October 1, China
will celebrate 60 years of one-party Communist rule.
Meanwhile, despite Wen's assurances in Europe, objective analysts expect the
Chinese economy to decline further as exports continue to shrink, factory
shutdowns mount and unemployment grows. Beijing's worst nightmare is that these
economic woes could fuse with political grievances to create an explosive
social cocktail. In times like these, the last thing the leadership wants is
economic challenges and harangues from the US on its human-rights record.
That said, there is a case to be made for broader US engagement of China as
long it is skillfully managed. Indeed, much of the world would welcome such a
change after the virtual free pass given to Beijing during the Bush years -
years in which political reform has proceeded at a snail's pace and activists
who dared to speak out against injustice have been routinely jailed without
even the pretense of a fair trial.
Obama's victory has returned to the US a moral authority that had been
squandered by Bush in Iraq and in the American gulag in Guantanamo Bay. How he
uses that authority - building up China, not tearing it down - is the key.
China has made extraordinary economic progress over the last 30 years, lifting
millions out of poverty as it powered its way from an economic backwater to the
world's third largest economy.
But now, under Hu and Wen, Beijing has ambitions to become not just another
economic superpower but also a nation admired as a positive force in
international affairs - a voice that has the moral authority to stand
toe-to-toe with the West at the same time that it champions the cause of the
developing world. Clearly, China will play an eminent role in the new world
order, and a smart, diplomatically agile Obama administration should act to
influence and facilitate that role. This will involve some give-and-take but
also some push-and-shove - on the global economy, human rights, Tibet, Taiwan
The global economic crisis notwithstanding, it is time for the Sino-American
relationship to move beyond the so-called Strategic Economic Dialogue of the
Bush years to a more comprehensive conversation about what it means to be a
respected, responsible player in world affairs. And Obama might discover that
the Chinese are willing to have that conversation as long as it is carried out
with mutual respect and understanding.
The chasm of silence into which Geithner's allegation of currency manipulation
has fallen is a sign that Obama is already catching on. Currency manipulation
is a serious offense that could prompt Congressional intervention with Beijing
but that is not the way a new American administration wants to begin what is
going to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
In the best of all possible worlds, Obama's America will shore up the country's
all-important economic relationship with China at the same time that it helps
to bring Beijing along as responsible partner in world affairs.
Of course, there are also other, less favorable scenarios. But with new
beginnings, there are always new hopes - and that is particularly true of
Obama, whose campaign for the White House was an intoxicating mix of hope,
dreams and the promise of change that ultimately, despite the daunting odds
against him, won over the American people and much of the rest of the world.
Obama, however, has yet to win over the Chinese. That could be a harder job.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at