President Obama's Trip to East-Asia Irks China

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. President Obama is in the middle of his first post-re-election foreign trip. He chose to go to Asia. Now, given that both Obama and Romney used China as a punching bag during the campaign, you'd think the President might want to go there to speak with China's new leaders. But no, instead he opted for Burma and Cambodia. Obama is making history on this trip. He is the first sitting US president to visit either country. The World's Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing explains how the trip is going down in China.

Mary Kay Magistad: I think President Obama's vist to Burma and Cambodia is a symbolic event, and I think the Chinese are pretty savvy about reading the significance of the visit. President Obama will be visiting China again no doubt, he will be visiting other countries in the region. The Chinese are fully aware and accept that the US has longstanding alliances with different Asian countries. But when President Obama is visiting specifically, actually three countries that have all had close relations with China, he also was in Thailand on Sunday, the Chinese see this as a pointed attempt by the United States to show that not only is it not leaving the Asia-Pacific, but it will endeavor to have relations with the very countries with whom China has tried very hard over the years to build up close relations.

Werman: I doubt China's government actually says we don't like how Burma is opening up. What has been the official reaction from Beijing?

Magistad: Well, in the official Chinese media there have been a number of op-eds about, okay, the US is trying to be hegemonic and to contain China, and maybe even to develop new markets for arms sales. It's sort of nudging in into issues where it doesn't belong and has no business. For instance, China's disputes with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines over who has what rights to territory and the high seas in the South China Sea, and also to the tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. One perspective here is President Obama is coming to again show we, the United States, are an Asia-Pacific power and we're not going away. The Chinese one the other hand feel that maybe the US should step back one or two paces and let China resolve these issues the way it would like to, which is one-on-one, bilaterally, which is an approach that would mostly allow China to strong arm its way into being able to get what it wants out of the negotiation.

Werman: Obama spoke rather eloquently at Burma's main university today. What about the setting in and of itself? The university there has been essentially shuttered since pro-democracy protests in 1988. What's the significance of where Obama spoke?

Magistad: Oh, it's hugely significant. The university itself became sort of a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, as did the residence across the street, Aung San Suu Kyi's home, where President Obama also paid a visit. Just a couple of years ago there were still guards outside her home who weren't allowing many people to come and see her at all. So things have changed dramatically in Burma in a very short period of time. And President Obama felt that by coming now it provided the right amount of encouragement and possibly a little inspiration. You know, this is a path that you're traveling on and we're here to support you if you continue to travel on it. There are some detractors, some people within human rights groups who say maybe it was a little too soon for him to go to Burma. We don't know for sure whether the reforms are going to keep going apace the way they have been the past year, and shouldn't you withhold some sort of rewards until you see more results. In fact, even Aung San Suu Kyi herself was a little bit hesitant at first but eventually signed on to the idea that this was a good time for the visit. And President Obama definitely pressed the point during his speech of we're inspired by what you've done, but it's the beginning of a very long journey.

Werman: The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad. Always good to speak.

Magistad: Good to speak with you too, Marco.