By Sam Youngman - 11/14/09 11:28 AM EST
President Barack Obama’s first trip as president to Asia includes stops
in Japan, Singapore and South Korea. But it is blossoming superpower
China that presents the biggest challenges for the president.
Obama is under domestic pressures to win concessions or cooperation from China on issues ranging from trade and climate change to tightening pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program.
Obama also faces calls from Asian countries and U.S. business groups to step up his country’s presence in the region, where the U.S. is seen as losing influence to China.
“It’s a common perception in the region that U.S. influence has been on the decline in the last decade, while Chinese influence has been increasing,” said Jeffrey Bader, national security council director for East Asian affairs.
“And one of the messages that the president will be sending in his visit is that we are an Asia Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul,” Bader said.
The problem for the administration is that the actions Asian countries are looking for are difficult for Obama because of domestic politics.
On a range of economic issues, Obama is corralled by his own party; Democrats and labor unions are weary of increased trade, and many believes Chinese imports in particular are causing losses for U.S. manufacturers and workers.
Liberals, especially labor unions, cheered Obama’s decision to slap a tariff on Chinese tires earlier this year, but Chinese officials have hinted that they increasingly view the U.S. as too protectionist in its policies amidst a global economic crisis.
The talks on economics are made more awkward by the fact that China has become the U.S. banker by buying U.S. treasury bonds, which finance deficit spending exacerbated by the recession. China holds $2.2 trillion in foreign currency reserves, most of which is believed to be in U.S. dollars.
China’s central bank this week suggested it could offer concession on one constant irritant to the U.S. Congress; China’s policy of pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar. The Chinese central bank hinted it could accept a stronger Chinese currency.
The announcement drew a skeptical response from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a frequent critic of China’s currency policy.
“We hope this will actually lead to results, and is not simply a feint in advance of the president’s visit,” Schumer said.
Obama arrives in Shanghai on Monday, where he will meet with the mayor and continue his tradition of delivering a speech to the youth of foreign countries he visits. Later on Monday he will travel to Beijing for a dinner with President Hu Jintao.
Obama and Jintao on Tuesday will sit down for a bilateral meeting, after which Obama will take some time to see the city of Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday. He will also attend a state dinner and hold a bilateral meeting with the Chinese premier.
“We look for the president to have intensive conversations about how our two countries see each other, to try to build trust and cooperation,” Bader said.
The president will also continue to try to make some progress on climate change talks with China ahead of the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark in December.
Deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs Michael Froman, however, acknowledged that the White House does “not expect that Beijing is going to produce a climate change agreement.”
“But we do expect that the leaders will spend some time together discussing how best to proceed and how to work together to make Copenhagen a success,” Froman said.
Members of Congress have been reluctant to support an international climate change agreement unless China makes steeper concessions.
Obama will also discuss national security issues like Iran, North Korea and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, officials said.
“On none of these issues can we succeed without China’s cooperation,” Bader said. “So we don’t see this relationship as a zero-sum one. We see it as a relationship where we’re obviously going to have differences, where we are going to be competitors in certain respects. But we want to maximize areas where we can work together because the global challenges will simply not be met if we don’t.”
Administration officials also said Obama would press Hu on the issue of human rights, a consistently tricky proposition given how heavily invested China is in U.S. debt.
The president made waves recently when he canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama, leading to questions over whether the meeting was put off so as not to rankle the Chinese government before his trip.
The White House has repeatedly disputed that characterization, saying that Obama will meet with the Tibetan leader soon.
“I have every reason to expect that the issue of Tibet will come up on the trip,” Bader said. “The president has made clear that he is prepared to meet with the Dalai Lama in the future at the appropriate time. He met with him in the past when he was a senator, and he will meet with him again.”