Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 13:03 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 13:03 | SYDNEY

Obama in China


Sam Roggeveen


17 November 2009 16:51

This post also appears on The National Times website.

With no specific policy initiatives emerging from President Obama's China visit, China's netizens are left to ponder pieces of symbolism and trivia. Why were 'ObaMao' t-shirts banned during the president's visit? Was Obama too deferential on Chinese censorship or did he subtly criticise China's great firewall? And what can we read into the fact that Obama carried his own umbrella when he disembarked from Air Force One at Shanghai airport?

The American media, meanwhile, is preoccupied with Afghanistan. Obama is due to make an announcement about troop levels in coming days; he may even tack a trip to Kabul on the end of his Asia itinerary. And, as this Wall Street Journal article points out, many of the issues that divide the US and China — the valuation of China's currency, concrete meaures on North Korea and Iran, climate change — are pretty intractable, meaning concrete results from the rest of the trip are unlikely.

So is this whole visit a non-event?

Not really. Even if no agreements are signed or initiatives launched, it matters when the leaders of two of the most powerful countries on earth get together. Specifically, it matters how these two giants view their respective roles in the world, and how they accomodate the preferences and needs of the other. To that end, the most significant part so far of Obama's trip came before he even arrived in China, in the speech he gave in Tokyo on the first leg of his Asia tour.

First, note the symbolism of the Japan-first itinerary. When Prime Minister Rudd overlooked Tokyo for his first overseas tour but did visit Beijing, the Japanese were none too pleased. At the time, I defended Rudd, and I maintain there is too much emphasis on such details. But Japan was similarly upset when Bill Clinton just flew by Japan on his way to a 9-day China visit in 1998. The Obama team was clearly deferring to Japanese sensitivities by going to Tokyo first, though Obama spent less than 24 hours in Japan before his two-and-a-half day visit to China.

Obama used the speech to reassure Japan that the US was committed to the alliance and that Japan could count on America's nuclear umbrella '(s)o long as these weapons exist' (a nod to Obama's nuclear abolition agenda). The audience was left to wonder what would happen to America's security guarantee after 'these weapons' are abolished, though that is some decades off at least.

But as well as reinforcing a traditional alliance, Obama also flagged a change with the past:

In addition to our bilateral relations, we also believe that the growth of multilateral organizations can advance the security and prosperity of this region.  I know that the United States has been disengaged from many of these organizations in recent years. So let me be clear:  Those days have passed. As a Asia Pacific nation, the United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve. 

Supporters of Asian multilateralism, such as our own Prime Minister, will cheer. Japan's Prime Minister, who has suggested a new East Asian Community that excludes the US, may have been put back in his box a little — America clearly wants to be involved. And sceptics who point to the hesitancy and glacial pace of Asian multilateralism might wonder what the President is getting his country into.

But whether any existing or future body actually works in practise, Obama's signal that the US wants to muck in when it comes to regional multilateralism sends an important signal about how he views China's rise.

Since the end of the Second World War, the US has been central to building the institutions that have reinforced and then expanded a liberal world order — the UN, Bretton Woods, GATT, NATO, and the network of Asian alliances are the best examples. Many of those institutions are showing their age, and with the US seemingly destined to go into relative decline against a fast-growing China, now is the time for the US to reinvent these institutions or build new ones so that this decline is as well managed and as favourable to US interests as possible.

You'll never hear any American president talk about US decline, but Obama's willingness to shape these institutions suggests he understand this reality. And it's not a tragedy for America. As the strategic analyst Thomas Barnett has said, 'the structural reality that America spent the last seven decades creating has made this world more prosperous and more stable and more peace-filled than at any previous moment in world history. The price for that success is that we don't get to run the show all by ourselves anymore.'

But the long-term consequences for Australia are potentially more troubling. The US has enjoyed a preponderance of power in the Asian region more or less since the 70s, and Australia has been a great security beneficiary as a result. With the rise of China, that period of hegemony may be drawing to a close, which means a great deal more strategic uncertainty for Australia. The way the transition from US hegemony is managed will determine whether Australia suffers a strategic trauma or a mere strain.

Photo by Flickr user Amphis, used under a Creative Commons license.