Why Obama went to China by mattsteinglass
November 24, 2009, 2:43 am
Filed under: China

Matthew Yglesias says:

it’s difficult to get around the point that it’s hard to see why the President would fly to China unless the U.S. and Chinese foreign ministries already had some serious agreements ready to sign. There wasn’t a major multilateral conference in China that Obama had to attend. China’s not a longstanding American ally that gets a courtesy call just to say “hi.” If China and the United States weren’t prepared to announce major breakthroughs on major issues, that’s fine, but then why not save the trip for some future date when the breakthroughs are ready? There are worse things than a big trip that doesn’t end up with any key takeaways—the Bush administration appeared to have reached a one-sided nuclear deal with India a few years ago merely because they didn’t want to leave a presidential trip to India empty-handed—but it’s bound to leave people puzzled. At the end of the day, being president is a very busy job . . . what’s the need for superfluous trips?  

This is pretty simple: it’s very important in East Asian politics to show respect for other countries by having top leaders visit. To that end, visits between East Asian leaders typically involve the signing of completely meaningless “agreements” to increase mutual investment, cooperate on agreeing on terms to send more mutual delegations to discuss further cooperation, and so forth. That’s because they need to have high-level visits frequently to show each other their mutual respect, and you’re supposed to have some kind of deliverable to sign when you show up, but it’s hard to actually negotiate meaningful deliverables on a reliable timeframe, so they just make up some nonsense deliverables.

The Bush administration didn’t send top-level officials to East or Southeast Asia anywhere near often enough because they didn’t see the point. US relations with the region suffered as a result. Obama is correcting this mistake. This is exactly the point James Fallows makes in his posts on how the US press mis-covered Obama’s trip: to the American eye, these kinds of meetings may not look like much. But we don’t go to Asia to look good to Americans, we go there to improve relations with Asians.


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I think you’re approach would be right had the White House not set it up for failure prior to the trip and while there. We were told that Obama would be leaning heavily on the Chinese to back the US on Iran. Nothing. Anything that was suppose to be on the agenda came to nothing. Why not just set up the trip as one of paying respects to the country and be done with it if that is what it is?
Further, it is dangerous for the President to lecture China these days on internet censorship, etc. It is like me taking a mortgage from the bank and then showing up in the bank manager’s office to tell him what a scumbag he is. That probably isn’t going to work out very well. It’s tough to borrow a lot of money from a country and then lecture them.
I think, on this one, I have to go with Yglesias.

Comment by Rick Ungar

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