Obama's trip, China's role, Asia's summits
By Donald K Emmerson
The point of United States President Barack Obama's Asian itinerary is not to
shun Beijing. On the contrary, he will have chances to interact with Chinese
leaders at international conferences in South Korea and Japan. But China's role
in regional and world affairs is a major subtext of his journey. Unlike China,
all of the countries on Obama's tour are democracies, and they all have issues
Two big questions loom over the nine-day jaunt now underway to India,
Indonesia, South Korea and Japan: as a player in foreign affairs, will China
become a responsible stakeholder, an irresponsible stick-wielder, or something
in between? And what can China's neighbors do, with or without US help, to
answer toward the cooperative end of the spectrum?
Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
at a ceremony on December 10, 2010 in Oslo. Chinese authorities could have
criticized the affair and then ignored it. Instead, they chose, in effect, to
publicize the event, making it that much harder to ignore, by pressuring
European governments to ignore it, that is, not to attend and not to
congratulate the recipient. Early in November, Vice Foreign Minister
Cui Tiankai went so far as to describe the Norwegian award as a
premeditated move in a US-instigated campaign by Western governments and
companies "to undermine China". Any country that approved the award, he warned,
would suffer unspecified "consequences".
A month earlier, the lead Chinese negotiator at a climate-change conference in
Tianjin replied to American criticism of China's position on global warming by
calling the US "a pig preening before a mirror". Still earlier in the year, the
panda bared its teeth at territorial rivals in the East and South China Seas,
including blocking or allowing the blocking of rare-earth exports to Japan.
Soft power this is not. But hardball diplomacy is no reason to anticipate an
all-out rift. And even if containment were Obama's goal - it is not - his four
Asian hosts are more than mere stays in a corset to be tightened around the
panda's underbelly. The Cold War is still over.
All of the countries on Obama's tour belong to the East Asia Summit. So does
China. Next year the US will join as well. So will Russia. Conceivably the
summit could evolve into a venue, perhaps even a framework, for crafting a set
of mutually beneficial adaptations between China, the rest of Asia, and the
Skeptics doubt this. They worry that the sheer diversity of the 2011 summit's
18 members, far from promoting comity across the Asia-Pacific region, will
prove too diverse to be decisive, leaving relations to drift with the tide of
events. Such an outcome could suit those in Beijing who were not eager for
Washington to join the East Asia Summit in the first place. They would rather
project Chinese influence within the ASEAN Plus Three framework to which the US
does not and cannot belong.
Whatever the summit's fate, it will be affected by what Obama's four hosts
decide to do and not to do. China may not be explicitly on the agenda for
discussion at each stop on his route, but it is bound to figure in the
conversations that he and his retinue will have.
The overnight stop in Jakarta is a case in point. Indonesia has just assumed
the 2010-11 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN launched the East Asia Summit in 2005 and continues to shape it.
Indonesia will host the 2011 East Asia Summit and Obama plans to attend. In the
light of this enlargement of Jakarta's regional role, Washington wants to know
Indonesia's thinking on how to involve China constructively in regional
The whither-China question will also arise at the two multilaterals Obama will
attend: the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Seoul and the gathering of
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Yokohama. The overlapping
memberships of the G-20, APEC, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) will turn these
gatherings in 2010-11 into a traveling seminar on Asian and global policy and a
running test of the efficacy of roundtable diplomacy.
All of the heads of G-20 governments are expected to reconvene for the EAS in
Indonesia in 2011. All of the EAS leaders are slated to attend the 2011 APEC
forum in the US. Other multilateral venues in 2010-11 will bring lower-ranking
Chinese, Asian, and American officials together to discuss regional and global
political economy and security.
Will these occasions deliver agreements of sufficient substance to suggest that
mutually beneficial accommodations with China are possible - toward rebalancing
the global economy, assuring regional security, reducing tensions over
territorial claims, and slowing environmental degradation, among other
desirables? Will these efforts to deal jointly with problems elicit a degree of
Chinese cooperation sufficient to warrant the conclusion that China is amenable
to multilateral commitments for the larger common good? Or will China's
insistence on bilateral diplomacy and its aversion to multilateral negotiations
to resolve maritime disputes extend to other issues as well?
It will be ironic if a bilateralist hub-and-spokes approach traditionally
associated with Washington should gain favor in Beijing precisely at a time
when the Obama administration is reaching out to multilateral forums such as
ASEAN and the EAS. It will also be tempting to suggest that bilateralism, not
to mention unilateralism, is the natural preference of a dominant power, and
that as China gains more influence it is naturally becoming less interested in
multilateral engagement. Some may even explain Washington's new appetite for
multilateralism as an accommodation to diminished American power - collegiality
as a virtue of necessity.
The trouble with such accounts is twofold. First, they ignore the choice and
use of multilateral formats as sites for the projection of superior power. The
collaborative creation of the United Nations (UN), North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and what is now the
World Bank Group, after all, reflected not the decline but the dominance of the
US after World War II.
Second, the notion that multilateralism is the province of weak or declining
powers - a function of the global pecking order - ignores conditions inside a
country that may be conducive to a particular outlook on the outside world,
from go-it-alone nationalism to cooperative engagement with others. An
explanation for the recent muscularity of Chinese foreign policy may, for
example, implicate hardliners in the military versus soft-liners among civilian
specialists on foreign affairs, or the conservative rhetoric of President Hu
Jintao versus reformist comments made by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, or the
intentional stimulation of anti-foreign patriotism to distract domestic
attention from grievances and protests at the local level.
Could such within-country logic apply as well to the American side of
Beijing-Washington relations? If Mao Zedong was right that a revolution is not
a dinner party, will anti-China confrontation be a Tea Party?
The US's China policy per se was not a hot-button issue during the campaign
that culminated in Republican control of the House of Representatives. As a
group, for now, Republicans in Congress do not appear strikingly more (or less)
hawkish on Asia-Pacific security than their Democratic colleagues. Other things
being equal, US presidents are freer to make foreign than domestic policy
decisions. The power to ratify treaties belongs to the Senate, where the
Democrats retain a majority, albeit a reduced one.
One can nevertheless imagine a situation in which the Obama administration's
multilateralist gamble in Asia falls prey to some combination of factors
including Chinese "frown" diplomacy, Asian reluctance to stand up to Beijing,
and Republican aversion to the compromises that successful roundtable diplomacy
requires. Nor is time on Obama's side. If his foreign travel schedule in months
to come does not yield results that can be convincingly portrayed to Americans
as benefiting them, Republicans will declare the multilateralist experiment a
failed product of naivete. And if Chinese invective against the US continues,
panda-hunting will become an even more popular sport on the US electoral
campaign trail in 2012.
Two caveats are in order: First, Obama and his team will not easily allow their
Asia policy to become hostage to the ability of roundtables to deliver results.
That is why two of his four destinations - India and Indonesia - are patently
bilateral in nature. Second, in the competition for domestic approval, the
productivity of multilateralism is a trivial abstraction compared with the
recovery of the American economy. Obama knows this, which is why, in Mumbai,
the traveling White House released a list of signed or prospective bilateral
US-Indian agreements worth some US$10 billion in "support" of 53,670 new
It's the economy, stupid
The most important test of roundtable diplomacy on Obama's Asian journey will
occur at the G-20 summit in Seoul on November 11-12. Will the meeting implement
the G-20 leaders' pledge at their September 2009 session in Pittsburgh "to
adopt the policies needed to lay the foundation for strong, sustained and
balanced growth in the 21st century"?
Recent events have lowered expectations. Agreement to support "strong,
sustained and balanced" economic growth has become a mantra. But its repeated
invocation has not overcome the apparent tension between its component goals.
On their priority lists, export-dependent and poverty-conscious developing
economies rank strength first. They are loath to see their growth slowed in the
name of sustainability and balance. Nor do the most one-sidedly successful
exporters in the industrial world wish to be penalized for their manufacturing
The US, in contrast, is burdened with a grossly import-reliant and arguably
unsustainable imbalance of trade. Worried about unemployment and deflation at
home, Washington wants the export-focused economies to stimulate their own
domestic demand, including demand for American goods and services that could
help create American jobs.
Understandably in this context, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appealed
to sustainability and to balance when he urged the G-20 members to agree in
Seoul to keep their current account surpluses and deficits within a band from
+4% to -4%, respectively, of gross domestic product (GDP). But China and
Germany, among other exporting economies, quickly shot that idea down, and it
will not be adopted in Seoul. Instead, the summit will likely restate the
commitment, already reaffirmed by the G-20 finance ministers, to maintain
current account imbalances at sustainable levels as a means of growth - or
words to that effect.
Such phrasing will leave the three-term mantra intact but vague. That may not
be a bad thing. At least the G-20 leaders will have distinguished between what
is possible and what is premature. Geithner's idea may resurface in future in
less intrusive and more realistic guise as "indicative guidelines", possibly
linked to an "early warning" system to help member economies stay voluntarily
Win-win solutions are hard to find in zero-sum conditions. The good news is
that the world economy has recovered from the downturn that followed the
American Financial Crisis of 2008. As of October 2010, the Economist
Intelligence Unit expected the real rate of growth in global GDP at
purchasing-power-parity (PPP) exchange rates to jump from -0.7 % in 2009 to
+4.4 % in 2010, and the rate of growth in world trade to leap from -11.1 % in
2009 to +11.5 % this year. These figures may be disincentives to global reform;
why fix a problem that no longer exists? But they should facilitate
cooperation; a larger pie is easier to share.
A trip is not a policy. Obama's trip has purposes and aspects that are not
treated here. But its success will be judged in no small part on two grounds:
Did it further the American and Asian interest in helping China play a
constructive future role in world affairs? And did it validate the Obama
administration's decision to work with Asians, including China, in multilateral
These questions are linked. An internationally benign China can raise the
effectiveness of multilateral arrangements for the peace and prosperity of
Asia, the Pacific, and the world. The effectiveness of such arrangements and
their utility to China, the US, and other countries can, in turn, help convince
Beijing of the value of cooperation over dictation.
But what is a "constructive" role? What does it mean to be internationally
“benign”? Who gets to define these terms? The US? China? The G-20? Everyone?
In 2005, then-deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick famously urged Beijing
to become a "responsible" stakeholder in the international system. But the
phrase conveniently skipped the rights of a stakeholder, including whether
those rights should be enlarged in keeping with the size of its responsibility,
and whether they include the right to change the international system by making
it less reliant on American policy and less responsive to American preference.
As for American responsibility, the Seoul summit will take place in the wake of
criticism from several countries, including China, that the US Federal Reserve
has acted irresponsibly in deciding to purchase some $600 billion worth of US
government bonds. The Fed's purpose was domestic: to lower yields in hopes of
encouraging US growth and employment.
Some of the other G-20 governments worry, however, that this unilateral
American action could collaterally damage their own economies - overheating
them and spurring competitive devaluations. Conversely, if the Fed's move helps
to revive the US economy, the rest of the world should benefit, and what now
seems a risky step may be vindicated. The (ir)responsibility of some actions
can only be determined in retrospect.
As the Fed showed, national sovereignty and the unilateralist prerogative are
alive and well and living in the 21st century. But if China has to adapt to the
changing world, so must America. Successful adaptation presupposes, alongside
realistic knowledge of the world, realistic knowledge of oneself. If the US
were as powerful now as some in the Tea Party might like to believe, would
Geithner have had to withdraw his +4% to -4 % band from consideration by the
G-20 in Seoul?
Recently an Australian analyst, Hugh White, expressed concern that the US may
not be willing to share power with China. Depending on events, that may be an
appropriate future concern. Obama's administration and his present trip,
however, point toward a different conclusion: that far from piggishly preening
itself in a mirror, the US is willing to sit down with China and others around
a table and jointly seek solutions. The durability of that willingness
will depend, however, on the efficacy of these settings.
Relative to its historic peaks, US power has declined. Relative to what it
might someday become, Chinese power falls short. In such mutable conditions,
Asian hosts and multilateral arrangements deserve American attention. In this
supposedly "Asian" century, the wishes and actions of the leaders that Obama
will meet on his trip could more than marginally influence just how Chinese, or
how American, the terms of the two countries' mutual adaptation will be.
Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University.
His latest book is an edited volume, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy,
and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (2008). His website is http://seaf.stanford.edu/people/donaldkemmerson/.