Obama still seeking China's help on many fronts

Clinton delighted her hosts in Beijing in February when she said the United States would not let its human rights worries interfere with cooperation with China.

January 18, 2010 07:38
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. (photo credit: AP)


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WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama came into office talking tough on China. The emerging superpower, he promised, would be treated as a competitor, not coddled as a friend or shunned as an enemy.

The stern words of his presidential campaign, however, faded almost as soon as Obama settled in at the White House one year ago. During his first year, Obama's administration postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan monk reviled by Beijing, declined to label China a currency manipulator and was cautious in its criticism of China's human rights record.

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Obama's China policy has been designed to gain concessions from a country crucial to solving global crises. Yet the United States has seen little benefit on many of its pressing problems, including nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea and tackling climate change and economic worries.

Obama's top diplomats urge patience as they work to strengthen what they call the world's most important, and most complex, relationship.

China has loomed large during Obama's first year, making room for itself at a crowded foreign policy table that included wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That will continue.

Still, the more Obama portrays Beijing's cooperation as crucial, the more Americans will want to see action from China and then be disappointed if little comes from US efforts.

So far, China's ally North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear program. Beijing has shied away from tough sanctions against Iran and is wary about making climate change commitments that it feels would hinder its economy. Businesses and labor groups say China continues to violate trade rules and manipulate its currency.


As Obama enters his second year in office, ties between the two powers could fray. The Obama administration is preparing for a probable visit next month from the Dalai Lama and a widely expected arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims as its territory.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week that Washington would continue to sell arms to Taiwan and support the Dalai Lama. But, she said, the Obama administration, through its efforts to engage China in 2009, has created a relationship that "doesn't go off the rails when we have differences of opinion."

That claim will be tested in 2010, which has started with tension.

Internet giant Google threatened this week to shut down its China-based site over censorship and e-mail hacking. The United States says it will lodge a formal complaint to Beijing on the alleged hacking attacks.

Trade and economics continue as irritants.

Congress could face pressure to enact punishing legislation against China in response to claims by American manufacturers that Beijing's management of its currency has caused huge trade deficits for the United States.

US companies say manipulation makes Chinese products cheaper in America and American goods more expensive in China. Obama has so far declined to cite China officially as a currency manipulator.

His administration did act against China, however, on two fronts: he responded to labor pressure by slapping duties on Chinese-made tires and steel pipes.

Human rights are another point of contention.

Obama has been criticized for playing down US worries about rights abuses. Clinton delighted her hosts in Beijing in February when she said the United States would not let its human rights worries interfere with cooperation with China.

Obama also sparked anger when he postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after a visit with Chinese leaders in Beijing in November. His deputies said that more could be accomplished on Tibet issues if an Obama-Dalai Lama meeting was not hanging over Obama's summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

China, however, remains as unyielding as before the summit in its hostility toward the Dalai Lama, who says he wants greater autonomy, but not independence, for Tibet.

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