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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Goodwill hunting: Obama treads delicately with China

November 22, 2009

Michael Fullilove
The Sydney Morning Herald
November 21, 2009

Barack Obama has come to the end of his week-long
trip around Asia, with stops in Japan, China and
South Korea as well as Singapore for APEC and a meeting with ASEAN leaders.

The tour went pretty well. There were no big
mistakes (unless, like right--wing bloggers in
the United States, you trouble yourself with the
depth of the President's bows), but there were no
memorable achievements either.

The week did add to our understanding of his
approach to four issues that matter to Australia:
the future of Asia; US relations with its
competitors and allies, and human rights.

Some analysts think that among American
politicians, only Republicans care about this
part of the world. Democrats are supposedly too
interested in Europe to understand Asia.

Yet last week shows that the region matters a
great deal to Obama. He knows more about the
Pacific than most of his predecessors and there
was nothing desultory about this trip.

The Europeans are certainly feeling a little
anxious about his Asia focus. More than one
commentator contrasted his presence in Asia this
week with his absence from the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Any US president would have brought a respectful
demeanor with him to Beijing. China is not only
America's leading creditor and trading partner;
its global power is increasing across all
dimensions. Talk of the US and China forming a
''Group of Two'' wildly flatters Beijing, which
cannot compare with Washington in its ability to
project power or influence decisions, or its
willingness to bear responsibilities.
Nevertheless, China is the coming power, and the
agenda for Obama's talks with President Hu Jintao
-- covering tariffs, currency, climate change,
Iran and Afghanistan - demonstrated the breadth of China's interests.

In light of this, Obama proposed to "deepen" the
bilateral relationship and his officials have
spoken of ''strategic reassurance''. This
approach is worth trying. The Chinese remain very
conscious of the wounds they suffered at the
hands of the imperial powers, so Western dictates
are unlikely to produce results. Instead, Obama
is trying to draw Beijing further into the
international system's web of benefits and obligations.

If strategic reassurance is to be meaningful,
however, it needs to be reciprocal. There were no
signs of Chinese concessions on currency
revaluation or climate change, no tough Chinese
talk (as we have seen from the Russian President,
Dmitri Medvedev) on Iran's nuclear program.

Obama urged that "in an inter-connected world,
power does not need to be a zero-sum game." The
Chinese leadership may like that line, but I don't think they believe it.

One advantage Obama has in this game is a
decades-old alliance structure of enormous value,
one that China would love to replicate. In Japan
and South Korea, Obama sent the signal that these
alliances ''are not historical documents from a
bygone era, but abiding commitments to each other
that are fundamental to our shared security''.
Both sides moved a little on the Korea-US free
trade agreement, and Obama showed real steel in
his comments on the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.

This was important because his commitment to
alliances remains untested. The alliance system
does not form a mental framework for him in the
way it does for, say, Senator John McCain. In
this context, the personal relationships between
allied leaders and the President assume unusual
importance. It was hard to spot another
Asia-Pacific leader last week who has a stronger
bond with Obama than Kevin Rudd, who was very
adroit in his dealings with the President.

But the trip also shed more light on Obama's
approach to human rights. As President he has
been quiet on the issue, even declining to meet
his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai
Lama. He telegraphed that human rights would be
progressed with China ''in a spirit of partnership rather than rancour''.

Obama spoke out on censorship in his meeting with
young Chinese in Shanghai. He was, perhaps,
overly cautious with his choice of words, saying
"I'm a big supporter of non-censorship'' - which
is, presumably, less confronting than saying
''I'm a big opponent of censorship'' or ''I'm a
big supporter of free speech''. Eighteen months
ago, in his speech at Peking University, Rudd was
more forthright, referring to "significant human rights problems in Tibet."

As US President, Obama needed to be careful in
his remarks. The last thing he needs, with a
looming decision about troop deployments to
Afghanistan and more trouble in the Holy Land, is
a spat with China - whose goodwill he wants. But
human rights always finds its place in US foreign
policy, and over time it will with this administration too.

It was good to have Obama in the region last
week. We should take him at face value when he
says: "Asia and the United States are not
separated by this great ocean; we are bound by it.''

Michael Fullilove is director of the Lowy
Institute's global issues program and a
non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
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