Friday, November 20, 2009

The Realist Prism: Horse Trading with Beijing

During his trip to Asia, President Barack Obama laid out a grand rhetorical vision for the future: a U.S.-China partnership working together to solve the world's most pressing issues. Speaking in Japan, Obama declared, "America will approach China with a focus on our interests. It's precisely for this reason that it is important to pursue pragmatic cooperation with China on issues of mutual concern, because no one nation can meet the challenges of the 21st century alone, and the United States and China will both be better off when we are able to meet them together."

It sounds very dramatic, almost like a form of co-dominion, with two global powers sharing the burdens of maintaining the international order.

There's just one small problem, of course: That is not what the United States is offering.

Washington still hopes that China will be satisfied with a "reformed" global system, one that might give Beijing a greater say in world affairs but would leave the United States in the position of chairman of the board (and the principal agenda-setter to boot). This is why Li Hongmei, an editor at People's Daily Online, characterizes the president's rhetoric as part of the same general U.S. strategy of "setting a limit on China's rise and growth by offering definitions and assessments of China's role in the international system. This also reflects the paradox in American logic: On the one hand, it needs China's leverage to combat the thorny problems facing all -- like climate change, nuclear threat and terrorism; while on the other hand, it will be on guard against China's rise as a global power, which they fear would overshadow the U.S."

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