The World from Berlin 'Obama's Soft Approach on China Won't Succeed'

Though President Obama has not shied away from discussing human rights and censorship on his three-day trip to China, German commentators argue that growing US dependence on China has taken the thunder out of his rhetoric.
A Chinese artist crafts a figurine made from flour and water of US President Barack Obama.

A Chinese artist crafts a figurine made from flour and water of US President Barack Obama.

Foto: CHINA DAILY/ REUTERS

It wasn't the kind of town hall meeting that US President Barack Obama normally engages in. Instead of lively debate and tough questions, his audience of handpicked university students in Shanghai was largely passive as they listened to Obama speak of how relaxed Internet laws and free speech were "a source of strength (that) should be encouraged." Using carefully chosen words, he also mentioned human rights.

Obama was eager to avoid offending his hosts. But the Chinese proved even more eager to ensure that few listened in on the Q&A with the president. According to the Associated Press, only one local television station carried the event live. It took four clicks to get to Obama's comments on the Chinese-language transcript published on the Web site of the official Xinhua News Agency. Audio and video feeds of the event were delayed and of poor quality. Bloggers had their transcripts of the event taken down by censors. And coverage in the media generally glossed over any of the comments Obama made on touchier issues.

The trip gives Obama a chance to speak with Chinese President Hu Jintao about a host of issues affecting the two countries, including climate change, the ongoing global financial crisis and nuclear proliferation concerns in Iran and North Korea. But the US is in a new position of dependency in its relations with China. Not only is China the largest foreign holder of US debt, but -- thanks in part to an artificially undervalued yuan -- also has a giant trade surplus  with the US. Obama seemed intent on treading softly.

German commentators on Tuesday take a closer look at the new US tone in China.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The president's wordsmiths have called the administration's gentle rapprochement policy with China 'pragmatic cooperation.' Those who create such phrases deserve to be viewed with some suspicion. He's trying to hide his real intentions. Obama wants cooperation with China at almost any price. Pragmatism is nothing more than putting aside your scruples in a time of need."

"Still, though many undoubtedly consider Obama's approach to be the wrong one, is that really the case? In reality, there aren't any alternatives to seeking some sort of balance with the gruff regime in Beijing. As Obama's predecessor quickly learned, confrontation doesn't accomplish a thing. Obama's soft approach will most likely not succeed in accomplishing what presidents before him have failed to achieve, namely, to convince China's leadership to allow a little freedom. But it's still worth trying."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"All of a sudden, the feeble giant feels strong because it knows that the global economy, as well as many parts of global politics, can no longer ignore it. Chances are that, during the bilateral talks, Obama will get a bitter taste of China's method for interacting with other countries. China is benefiting from the exchange rate of its currency versus the dollar. And it is giving absolutely no thought to jeopardizing this competitive advantage by making (what the consensus-oriented Europeans would call) a gesture of solidarity aimed at its trading partners."

"For some time now, China's leaders have been speaking about the 'harmonious' world they are aiming for. You hear that word a lot, but it's just hard to believe. China is showing Barack Obama that 'harmony' primarily means that the outside world shouldn't bother China with its demands. If China is going to behave in a constructive manner (as it has done, for example, in the conflict with North Korea), it will do so because it comes from a position of power and not because some foreigners would like it to."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"Barack Obama is witnessing the dawning of the trans-Pacific era. To a certain extent, it will replace the trans-Atlantic one, which determined global politics for more than 60 years. Despite the fact that it has still not come to terms with its own major deficits in terms of civil society, there's hardly any way to bypass China. Because of its economic weight and energy hunger alone, it's impossible to ignore China."

"Beijing's highly regulated and state-run capitalist approach uses an artificial devaluation of the yuan to drive exports. That makes China America's largest creditor and inevitably leads to unpleasant dependencies. Obama cannot force Beijing to revalue its currency. We're all familiar with the phrase: 'If you can't beat your enemy, join him.' Obama will be staying in China for three days and will pay tribute to this new reality."

Josh Ward
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