Clinton gets off to a good start in China

by Frank Ching

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China — the most important leg of her trip to Asia, which included Japan, Indonesia and South Korea — went off well, in part because she had indicated publicly ahead of time that differences over human rights would not be allowed to inhibit progress on other matters.

As a result, she was able to reach her objective, which was to demonstrate to China the seriousness of the Obama administration’s intention to maintain good relations with it and to work together with Beijing to tackle global issues.

Clinton succeeded in showing that the new U.S. administration has no intention to treat China as an antagonist, despite the gaffe by Timothy Geithner who, before he was confirmed as Treasury secretary, had said that President Barack Obama considered China a manipulator of its currency. If the Obama administration had persisted along that course, it would have been very difficult to expect Chinese cooperation on global issues.

Moreover, the United States also wants China to continue to lend it large amounts of money by purchasing Treasury bonds. And Clinton indicated during her visit that Beijing is likely to do so, as long as it also coincided with Chinese interests.

Clinton’s pragmatic attitude enabled her not only to demonstrate the Obama administration’s desire to work with China; it also enabled her to demonstrate the American commitment to human rights, without poking China in the eye.

After discussing human rights with her Chinese interlocutors, she met at the American embassy with women activists who work for nongovernmental organizations that deal with such human rights issues as poverty, health care and gender equality. She also went to church on Sunday before heading for the airport in an attempt to demonstrate her interest in religious freedom.

She and her Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, held a joint press conference where they announced that their principals — Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao — would hold their first summit conference in April when both men will be in London for a Group of 20 meeting that has been billed as one to create a new economic order.

Clinton said that both she and Yang had a simple premise: It is essential that the U.S. and China have a positive, cooperative relationship. With the articulation of that premise, other problems should be put in the proper perspective.

No doubt, problems will arise in future but, for now, both countries appear to share a sense of global responsibility and are willing to work together on the two main challenges facing the world today: the continuing international financial crisis as well as climate change.

The two sides also covered a wide range of other issues, including the North Korean nuclear weapons issue, Iran and cross-strait relations. These are all matters that require cooperation between Washington and Beijing if they are to be properly managed.

While the London G20 summit will tackle economic and financial issues, climate change will be the topic of the Copenhagen conference in December.

The Clinton trip should put to rest speculation that Sino-American relations may be strained by the Obama administration’s putting pressure on China to revalue its currency or by adopting protectionist trade measures. Both countries clearly appreciate the overriding importance of maintaining a cooperative relationship. The bilateral dialogues initiated by the Bush administration may be tweaked but they will continue, possibly at an even higher level.

Clinton had indicated that the Sino-American dialogue would no longer be dominated by Treasury and the discussion of economic issues. She said that she and the new Treasury secretary “will both be fully engaged in this dialogue,” suggesting that she may want to lead the dialogue herself.

As Yang said, the upcoming summit meeting between the leaders of China and the U.S. will be of great importance and careful preparations will have to be made to ensure its success. He will fly to Washington in March to pave the way for the London conference and the Obama-Hu summit.

There is very little time left between now and April. There is a little more time, though not much more, between now and December. The two countries have their work cut out for them if they are to reach joint positions to be adopted in London and Copenhagen. It is not only in their interests, but in the interests of the rest of the world, for these two countries to work together at these two crucial conferences.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.