The World from Berlin: 'Obama Can Not Afford a Rift with China'

Chinese President Hu Jintao is in the US for a four-day visit which observers speculate could thaw frosty relations between Beijing and Washington. German commentators warn that the world cannot afford conflict between the two major powers.

Chinese and American flags fly on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit, which began Tuesday. Zoom
REUTERS

Chinese and American flags fly on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit, which began Tuesday.

When US President Barack Obama took office two years ago, among the many hopes riding on him was an improvement in US relations with China. There was much talk of the "Group of 2" (G-2) that the two countries would form, which would supposedly shape the new world order.

But instead of a new era of harmony between the major powers, the opposite has happened. US-Chinese relations are currently tenser than they have been in years. Chief among the many bones of contention is bilateral trade. American politicians accuse China of keeping its currency undervalued against the dollar to make its exports artificially cheap. Meanwhile Beijing, which has huge foreign currency reserves, has been flexing its burgeoning economic might by buying up European sovereign debt, ostensibly to help the euro zone overcome its current woes. Observers believe that China is keen to diversify its investments as a result of economic trouble in the US; it already owns massive amounts of American debt.

Washington is also eyeing China's ongoing military expansion with concern. Beijing's recent unveiling of a new stealth plane was just the latest sign that China's armed forces are becoming increasingly powerful. America's ally Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, also remains a contentious issue between the two countries.

Not Many Friends in Beijing

The countries are also divided over issues of democracy and human rights. Obama's support for the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, is unlikely to have won him many friends in Beijing. The US is also concerned about China's growing influence in Africa, where Beijing has been trying to secure access to raw materials, and is frustrated that the Chinese leadership has not done more to reign in its unruly ally North Korea.

Hence the four-day visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington is being closely watched. Hu arrived in Washington on Tuesday and had a private dinner at the White House with Obama. He will hold talks with the US president on Wednesday, before heading to Chicago on Thursday. There, Hu will meet business leaders and is expected to sign a number of US-China trade deals.

The lavish reception that the US is laying on for Hu shows how important the trip is to Obama. Progress on the fundamental issues that divide the rival powers seems unlikely, however, and the main aim of the meeting appears to be a thawing in the frosty atmosphere.

Writing ahead of Wednesday's talks between the two leaders, German commentators ponder the future of the US-China relationship and wonder how the new world order will function once Washington has to share power with Beijing.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The two nuclear powers must find a way in which they can build trust and avoid misunderstandings. The question is whether President Hu Jintao's visit can bring the hoped-for stability to what has been described as the 'most important bilateral relationship in the world.' Thankfully there can be no talk of a new Cold War. But Washington is concerned about how power relations are shifting, particularly in Asia. Weakened by the financial crisis, America is seen -- at least partially -- as a superpower in decline. In contrast, China, whose economy is now the world's second largest, is regarded as the savior of the global economy."

"Hu Jintao will try in America to reduce the fears caused by China's rise. He will assert that the People's Republic primarily wants to ensure stability in its own country and would like to have a 'harmonious world.' What is more important, however, is that the nice words should be followed up by action. Otherwise, there will continue to be the suspicion that China could abandon its 'peaceful' pragmatism at any time, once Beijing considers itself strong enough to defend its interests more vigorously. China must act responsibly and create clarity regarding its intentions. That is the only way that major conflicts can be prevented in the future."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"When Chinese President Hu Jintao meets the US president in Washington on Wednesday, it will be a meeting of two powers, two cultures and two visions of how the map of the current and future world should look. They know that they need each other, but at the same time they are also rivals competing for the riches and loyalties of the Pacific Rim. They are separated by the question of who will inherit the Earth. For today, the answer is the US. But how long will that last? And how will America share the role of the world's leading power, moderate the ensuing conflicts and achieve the transformation from hegemony to a new balance of powers? And what will this mean for the Europeans, including Russia, in terms of equilibrium and their influence?"

"China and the US have different sizes and weight. They define themselves using different maps of the world. China's so-called 'peaceful development' will, assuming it does not slow down by itself, clash with America's policy of containment, while the US's hegemonic role will collide with China's rivalry. The politicians' task is to find a new equilibrium in good time."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The deep causes of the lack of understanding between China and the US, and the West in general, can be found in their history and culture and are rooted in their political and social systems. China mainly sees itself as a suppressed, misunderstood and mistreated country that is now catching up. It feels that its historical and cultural significance are not given enough respect and that (other countries are trying to) curb its economic dynamism. The US, on the other hand, is forced to acknowledge that China is growing into a nation of unprecedented strength, potential and discipline that does not fit easily into existing categories. The key issue is: Which rules will the American-Chinese world function under?"

"The Cold War left behind -- for the West at least -- a few useful lessons. One of the most important was the recognition that conflicts can be controlled if the necessary framework exists in the form of organizations that bring together both sides. China and the US have so far neglected these kinds of contacts. … When the presidents of the two countries meet, they will have a creative opportunity: It is up to them to map out the dimensions of this new relationship and take measures to explore the way forward. What is important here is trust and openness -- not to mention the realization that neither country will benefit if the world is once again divided into hostile camps."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Hu's visit is an attempt to 'reset' relations between the US and China, as already happened between Washington and Moscow. This is certainly in Hu's interests -- he will step down next year after 10 years in office and has no desire to leave his successor with a huge mess in regard to Chinese-American relations. … Obama, too, can not afford a rift with China; he needs Beijing's vote on the Security Council to impose further sanctions against Iran, just as he needs its influence in North Korea."

"The disputes over currency manipulation, climate change or human rights will not be solved at this summit. The aim here is to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. If Obama manages to make Hu understand that the US does not want to limit China's development, and the Chinese make a credible assurance to the Americans that they accept the existing world order, a lot will have been achieved -- and not only for Beijing and Washington, but also for Europe. Even if Europe does not want a new world order based on the G-2, no one wants a power struggle between the US and China whose consequences can not be predicted."

-- David Gordon Smith

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