Business, Finance & Economics

Obama in Beijing: What you will see. And won't see.


BEIJING, China – Through 30 years of fits and starts, the United States and China have soared and stumbled into one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

It’s now referred to by U.S. officials as “a mature relationship,” that is “broad and deep.” As such, it’s become a little boring. Throughout the tenure of President George W. Bush, U.S.-China ties became more about trade and cash than emotional issues like human rights. Phone calls and meetings between the leaders of the two countries are no longer rare, nor are state visits.

“These two countries are joined at the hip, on many levels,” said David Shambaugh of George Washington University, a long-time scholar of U.S.-China ties.

With President Barack Obama arriving next week for his first visit, experts say it’s about him seeing China firsthand, and China seeing that it can trust him.

What you will see:

The Obama visit is likely to be long on symbolism, throwing the weight of the president behind his team of trade and political negotiators who work in and with China year-round. His presence will reassure China’s top-down government that the points and issues repeatedly brought forward by the administration are coming from the top. Also important symbolically: A weakened America meeting a strong China. The U.S. is no longer in a position to scold.

Of interest will be how Chinese people react to the new American president. Thus far, general reaction has been quite tepid compared to elsewhere in the world. There isn’t a big anti-Obama movement in China, but neither is he adored like a rock star.

Obama flies into Shanghai from Singapore late on Sunday evening, and is tentatively scheduled to meet with university students there Monday. Questions remain, however, about the format of the discussion and whether Obama will be allowed to speak to the students in a town hall format, without a filter.

He departs for Beijing on Monday evening, where he has meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. On Tuesday, Obama and Hu will meet the press in a joint news conference. Also on the schedule — which reportedly has not been finalized — are a state dinner, a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing and a trip to the Great Wall.

What you won’t see:

The visit, experts say, is not likely to produce any serious breakthroughs or major announcements. The possibility, of course, does exist. But most of the main issues up for discussion — trade tensions, the value of China’s currency, climate change, Tibet and human rights among them — are long-term, ongoing areas of debate and negotiation. None are likely to be solved or inflamed significantly on this visit.

But the expected dearth of big announcements shouldn’t indicate this is not a work trip. To underscore that Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu will also be in China with the delegation, speaking and meeting on their own issues and continuing the ever-growing dialogue between the two nations.

What you might see:

Though the United States and China are more deeply and broadly connected probably than ever before, there is still plenty of room for language and cultural misunderstandings. In the lead-up to Obama’s visit, we’ve seen two:

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that as a “black president,” Obama should understand China’s position on Tibet. One of China’s core positions on Tibet is that it freed Tibetans from serfdom under the Dalai Lama. Nevermind that Obama is not a descendant of American slaves, and that he is biracial.

“He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln's major significance for that movement," said Qin. “(U.S. President Abraham) Lincoln played an incomparable role in protecting the national unity and territorial integrity of the United States.”

There was a blunder from the U.S. side just two weeks earlier. It was noted by no one, but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk made a simple language slip that might raise hackles in China if given wider attention.

During a press conference in Hangzhou following high-level trade talks Oct. 29, Kirk referred to the people of the “Republic of China.” He left out only the word “People’s” in China’s formal name, but that omission is important. The Republic of China is the formal name of Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province.