Obama and China: 'Decisive Diplomatic Victory'

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: China's relations with the U.S. feature in an article in the latest edition of The Atlantic. Correspondent James Fallows argues that President Obama has handled China exceptionally well. Fallows uses U.S.-China relations as a test case to examine how well the President is doing overall as he runs for reelection. James Fallows joins us now from Washington. So you were living and working in China when President Obama took office. How have U.S.-Chinese relations changed since then?

James Fallows: The main argument I make is that for all of the flailing around the Obama Administration may have had in other realms, especially economic management within the U.S., that the China relationship has been very deftly crafted on the American side over these past now three years essentially because the Administration has faced the main unchangeable reality of U.S.-China relations over the last three-plus decades, which is that they need to work together and yet have serious disagreements and has been able to pivot from that to make the best of it while being able to shoring up U.S. the relations with all the other countries in the region which matter too.

Werman: You cite one academic who says Obama's China policy is a decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. For me, it's less easy to see the victory than, say, Nixon's inroads to China in the seventies. Explain why this should be seen as a White House victory.

Fallows: The useful background is that starting in the fall in 2008 with the global financial emergency and then through 2009 there was a very distinct sense in China and in the Asian half of the world in general, which obviously matters economically and politically, that the Chinese had scored some kind of really decisive or turning point victory and the U.S. was in some kind of decisive and unlimited decline. When President Obama made his trip to China in the fall of 2009 there was this tone of almost unrelieved mockery in the U.S. press of how he was not lecturing the Chinese on their human rights problems, he was appearing hat in hand with his paymasters, etcetera. The point I try to say is that from the Administration's point of view they spent that first year or so of their dealings with China reassuring the Chinese on the main point of concern for the Chinese, from any Chinese government's point of view, which is; does the United States define itself as China's rival or as it's partner? And everybody said, "We welcome China's rise. We're not trying to bottle you up." etcetera. Meanwhile the Americans were shoring up relations with the Japanese, with the Koreans, with the Vietnamese, with the Filipinos, with the Australians, with the Singaporeans and all the rest who were afraid of what a very unbalanced Chinese-centric Asia might mean for them. And so, on his more recent trip to Asia when President Obama went to Australia, he announced this permanent Marine presence in Darwin in Northern Australia, which was what took the Chinese almost flat footed and yet in all the other countries of the region was welcomed as a sign of sort of a longer term balance of power in the Pacific.

Werman: Do you see this as a fruit of U.S. diplomacy and strategic thought, or is it kind of a byproduct of China's own over-reaching ambitions?

Fallows: I think both, but I do know first hand from having interviewed people in all different branches of the Administration as they've been talking about their China policy, even Ambassador Huntsman when he was still on the team and serving in Beijing, they all were saying from early on that this was their plan, to be as reassuring to the Chinese leadership as possible on this existential point for the Chinese leadership. To a degree, none of us here appreciate the Chinese regime really is always suspicious that the U.S. is trying to cast them as the new Cold War enemy or is trying to keep them from growing up. So they did a lot of deliberate reassurance on that, even eating crow and letting themselves be criticized in the U.S. press for that while meanwhile pushing ahead on currency issues, copyright issues and the larger Pacific Alliance. So I think it's partly ineptitude on the Chinese part, they're not very good strategically, contrary to impressions, and partly success and planning on this Administration's side.

Werman: James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest book, China Airborne will be published in May. James, thank you very much.

Fallows: My pleasure. Thank you Marco.