When President Barack Obama made his first state visit to China in 2009, his party controlled Congress, his hair was less gray and he boldly declared plans for a U.S. “pivot to Asia,” the driver of the world’s economy.
On Monday, the president will make his second visit to China under far more humbling circumstances. With Republicans in full control of Congress, Obama’s power is diminished at the same time China is rallying around its most dominant leader in three decades, Xi Jinping. In both Beijing and Washington, Obama is widely viewed as both a lame duck and a hobbled world leader, unable to match his rhetoric with actions.
“This is going to be a tough trip for the president,” said Ernest Bower, chair of Southeast Asia studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think when Southeast Asia looks at this trip and him coming, they’re wondering, you know, who is Barack Obama now after the midterm elections?”
Yet Obama’s week-long swing through China, Burma and Australia also presents him with an opportunity: He can put some substance behind his rhetoric that Asia should be a higher U.S. priority.
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As White House observers note, there’s a long American tradition of stymied presidents, in their final years, finding refuge in foreign policy. Having grown up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Obama clearly wants his legacy to include accomplishments in the Pacific Rim.
“The narrative among a lot of elites, including leaders, is that President Obama has the Asian engagement DNA in his blood,” Bower said. Yet distractions have proven difficult. In his second term, the president has repeatedly been diverted by foreign crises – particularly in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine – as well as clashes with House and Senate Republicans.
During his three-day visit, Obama is expected to spend several hours with Xi, as well as other foreign leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, held this year in Beijing. It will be Xi and Obama’s fourth face-to-face meeting since the two first met in Sunnylands, California, in mid-2013.
U.S. business and human right groups are pressing Obama to raise issues at APEC that China would rather avoid, such as its alleged cyber hacking of U.S. business records and its treatment of dissidents and ethnic groups. While administration officials say the president will address those issues, it is clear the White House wants to focus on topics where it has a better chance of agreement with Beijing.
In a briefing Friday, national security adviser Susan Rice said Obama will be in Beijing “talking about some of the global challenges that we all share.”
One of those is climate change. For the last year, Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts in China have been discussing a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. In 2013, China and United States struck a bilateral agreement to reduce hydrofluorocarbons. Environmentalists hope they strike a similar agreement reducing other carbon emissions in advance of a Paris climate negotiation meeting in 2015.
Obama and Xi are also expected to discuss the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the need for a stronger international effort to fight Ebola in West Africa, where China has multi-billion-dollar investments.
Part of Obama’s challenge in China is clarifying the overall goal of his Asia pivot. Does it aim to maintain U.S. influence in Asia, and thus contain China? Or it a policy that aims to engage China, helping it become a more open and congenial global partner, even if that diminishes U.S. influence?
Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, says Obama’s aim is clearly to maintain the status quo, which China rejects.
“Beijing has a very different vision of the two countries’ future relationship and their respective roles in Asia,” White wrote recently on the China Dialogue blog. “As Xi so often says, he wants a ‘new model of great power relations,’ which means he no longer accepts the old model represented by the status quo.”
Administration officials disagree that their aim is to “contain China.” The goal is not to “affect one nation or push people in any direction,” said Kerry in a speech Nov. 4. “It is an inclusive invitation to join in this march towards prosperity, dignity, and stability for countries.”
Despite those words, the White House has been highly concerned by China’s attempts to pick territorial fights with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and other countries. In his recent speech, Kerry said, “We are deeply concerned about mounting tension in the South China Sea and we consistently urge all the parties to pursue claims in accordance with international law.”
On Friday, China moved to calm those tensions. Along with Japan, it announced an agreement to resume stalled talks and set up a crisis-management system to prevent conflicts from escalating. While Kerry praised that agreement Saturday, it does not appear that the United States played a role in making it happen, which some analysts say is a good thing.
“China and Japan already have good channels of communications,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Any U.S. role would be counterproductive.”
Ironically, the Republican takeover of Congress may help Obama with one of his Asia goals – approval of a free trade agreement with 12 countries. Opposition from Japan and congressional Democrats so far has stalled the agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But with the GOP controlling the Senate, the TPP may get new life in Obama’s final years in office.
Following Beijing, Obama will travel Wednesday to Burma, also known as Myanmar, a nation isolated for decades under military rule but now emerging as a democracy. While there, Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Obama became the first U.S. president ever to set foot in the country in 2012. He will use his second visit to again highlight the nation’s successes, while urging the government to go even further to help halt repression of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group by the nation’s Buddhist majority.
Following Burma, Obama will travel to Brisbane, Australia, where he will deliver a speech on “U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific” in advance of the G20 economic summit in Brisbane. While there, Obama is likely to talk to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott about international efforts to control climate change, including creation of a multi-billion-dollar “Green Climate Fund” supported by France and other European countries.
The Green Climate Fund is considered essential in persuading developing nationals to support a United Nations deal to reduce greenhouse gases emissions at the Paris meeting next year. The fund aims to help poor countries cut their emissions and prepare for changes in weather patterns and natural disasters.
Under Abbott, Australia has rejected international efforts to control greenhouse gases. Australia is a major supplier of coal and other minerals to China.