China: Self-Centered on the World's Center Stage

  • Share
  • Read Later
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

President Obama tours the Great Wall of China in Badaling, outside of Beijing, on Nov. 18, 2009

President Barack Obama went to Beijing with a broad array of issues to put before China's leaders. If there was one theme that linked them, it was that U.S.-China ties were no longer just about the U.S. and China; they were also about the rest of the world.

"The relationship between the United States and China has never been more important to our collective future," Obama said on Tuesday as he stood before reporters with Chinese President Hu Jintao. "The major challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to economic recovery, are challenges that touch both our nations and challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone. That's why the United States welcomes China's efforts in playing a greater role on the world stage — a role in which a growing economy is joined by growing responsibilities."

China, for its part, has been reluctant to take up those new responsibilities. The late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once admonished his countrymen to "disguise their ambitions and hide their claws." It was useful advice for a country trying to pull itself out of decades of war and chaos. But now China's booming economy and resilience in the face of the global slowdown have left it in a prime position. It holds nearly $800 billion in U.S. Treasuries, making it Washington's biggest creditor. But Beijing is still not confident in acting on the world stage for any interest besides its own. A recent survey of Chinese élites by Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute, found that more than 90% rejected a special leadership role for China and more than 70% said the greatest contribution the country could provide the world would be to provide for its own development.

While China has vastly expanded trade ties and investments in Africa, Central Asia and South America, its foremost goal is to ensure its access to natural resources. In Afghanistan, China's $3 billion copper-mine investment is the country's largest single investment, but the stability of the war-torn region didn't merit a mention in Hu's 20-minute address. Neither did appreciation of China's currency, the renminbi, which Obama called "an essential contribution to the global rebalancing effort." Hu did, however, say that China and the U.S. "need to oppose and reject protectionism in all its manifestations in an even stronger stand," reinforcing China's view that recent U.S. tariffs pose a greater threat to the global economy than an undervalued renminbi, which has helped China prop up its exports sector even as global trade has slumped.

But while Obama leaves Beijing with little in the way of a diplomatic victory, Hu was able to win some acknowledgments from the U.S. Obama said the U.S. considers Tibet to be part of the People's Republic of China. While that is long-standing American policy, scholars could recall no point when a U.S. President has stated it publicly. Territorial questions like Tibet remain top priorities for China, and Obama's mention of that issue was a key win for Beijing. It's a sign that while China doesn't know how it wants to use its newfound clout on the global stage, it is learning how to get what it wants from the U.S.