Obama Goes to China

The president’s critics are wrong. His trip to Asia was actually a big success.

All presidential visits abroad are successful, at least according to their staffs. But how many presidential visits abroad do you recall having achieved much? Certainly Nixon's visit to China, and perhaps Reagan's trip to the Berlin wall, which came down years later because the Soviet Union went broke. And there was George W. Bush's famous trip to Latin America when he hardly showed up.

Apparently when Obama travels abroad he is being judged by a new standard. Giving serious speeches is just words and pure showmanship-or so say the cognoscenti. They want deeds, not words. Either he must score a clear, rousing success or he should not have gone. In addition to inheriting two immensely costly wars, an economy on the ropes, and rising unemployment, he is in the middle of trying to enact an immensely politically contentious health bill with many competing domestic political constituencies. He needs all the foreign help he can get, certainly in the economic field.

Yet during his Asian trip he was supposed to confidently assure Asians that he has all the right formulas on how to fix Asia and contain China, that America is back leading the world again despite the failure to resolve its own enormous difficulties. His Republican opposition wants him to be George W. Bush, laying down the law that nobody follows. And his Democratic buddies think they are back in the Clinton period, making believe that we still might run the world.

The fact is that the Asia trip was a real success. The China visit produced the most important Sino-American statement since the Shanghai Communiqué, setting forth a remarkable litany of the most compelling issues-including the economy, energy and climate change-that the United States and China intend to cooperate on, without omitting that there is much the two nations do not agree on. Admittedly, it did not reach the rhetorical human-rights standards of the Times and the Post, which generated all that massive political change in China. Whether they mean it or not, China welcomed the United States as an Asian-Pacific partner. Finally the president ended the condescending rhetoric demanding that China must be a "responsible stakeholder" and recognized that Beijing needs to be a managing partner in addressing some of the most pressing global issues. Whether it turns out to be just rhetoric remains to be seen, but both countries are very much aware of their dependencies. 

From the beginning of his administration and as a major part of his trip, Obama has worked toward ending the discord on North Korea policy with our major treaty partners-South Korea and Japan. They now sing from the same sheet on North Korea, and that seems apparent in Pyongyang's recently less truculent behavior. The saga with the DPRK is hardly over, and Pyongyang is not likely to give up its nuclear-weapons capabilities anytime soon. But progress is more likely when our allies are not snarling at our actions as they did in the last years of the Bush administration.

Thirdly, his trip to Singapore for the APEC and ASEAN meetings was not designed to do much more than to show and make clear that the United States was committed to serious engagement in the area, something that, beyond counterterrorism, was not apparent in the last administration. At some point America will have to make up its mind where it stands on East Asia's search for a new regional architecture, but that has not yet been adequately considered by the administration; in any event serious development of new Asian regional institutions is a ways off. More important is that the United States gets a new trade policy. And that means Obama will have to make some tough political decisions in the near future, hopefully after the domestic health-care issue is resolved. While Asian countries welcome American interest and involvement in the area, our position will be mostly determined by the health and vibrancy of our economic recovery  Rhetoric and chest beating will not likely counter China's increasing economic influence in the region.

We are not in a hundred-yard dash. The Obama administration has made some serious mistakes, notably the roll out of an AfPak policy in March before it knew what it was doing, and its absence of candor in explaining it. The president's new approach on AfPak will be the major test of his foreign policy. But Obama has gone some way in positioning the U.S. in the real world, nowhere better than in East Asia, which bids to be our deepest international interest. Whether he can build on the Asian trip remains to be seen. It cannot be taken for granted.


Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.