Observers analyzing the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to China, not unnaturally, looked for signs of a shift in the world balance of power — and they found them.
For one thing, the American leader was noticeably respectful of his Chinese hosts and did not attempt to lecture them, at least not in public and probably not in private as well.
And the Chinese side finally got what it had wanted for 30 years — being treated as an equal by the United States.
Of course, the shift in the balance of power does not mean that China is going to replace the U.S. as a global hegemon. It does mean, however, that China will play a much bigger role in world affairs.
During the Bush administration, Beijing was told that it had to learn to be a responsible stakeholder. Now, it is learning that it has to pay a price for a bigger voice in world affairs — the assumption of additional responsibilities. Power and responsibility go together.
A joint statement issued by the two countries shows the extent to which they now share a common world view. They reviewed global issues from the Middle East to South Asia, from the global economic recovery to climate change.
Each acknowledged the right, indeed the responsibility, of the other to deal with global issues. “The two sides noted that, at a time when the international environment is undergoing complex and profound changes, the U.S. and China share a responsibility to cooperatively address regional and global security challenges,” they said.
In the joint statement, the U.S. “welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs,” addressing China’s concerns of American attempts to frustrate its rise.
On its part, China declared that it “welcomes the U.S. as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region,” thus ameliorating American fears that a rising China would attempt to squeeze it out of the region.
In this emerging world order, both the U.S. and China will have to make adjustments. Washington, known for its predilections for unilateralism, will have to pay greater heed to the interests of China and other countries.
And China will have to play a global leadership role to which it is unaccustomed.
The late leader Deng Xiaoping warned his successors to keep a low profile and never take the lead, and China largely hewed to this course over the last two decades. But as the country has grown to become the world’s third-largest economy — soon to become the second-largest after overtaking Japan — it will have to come to terms with an unaccustomed new role.
In this new role, it will be difficult for China to be a follower in the international community, going along with majority views. Indeed, China will have to moderate its oft-stated policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs.
This is implied in the joint statement, where the two countries agree that they “share increasingly important common responsibilities of major issues concerning global stability and prosperity” and agree to “work together to tackle challenges, and promote world peace, security and prosperity.”
America’s and China’s interests are now so intertwined that each acknowledges the right of the other to be involved in its economic affairs since what one country does will affect the other.
Thus, to reassure China that its investments are safe, the U.S. promised to “take measures to increase national saving as a share of GDP and promote sustainable noninflationary growth” and return the “federal budget deficit to a sustainable path and pursuing measures to encourage private saving.”
And China promised to “continue to implement the policies to adjust economic structure, raise household incomes, expand domestic demand to increase contribution of consumption to GDP growth and reform its social security system.”
So what we have now is a framework for a bilateral relationship in which each sees the other as a partner.
What remains now is to build political trust, which is clearly still lacking. While both countries say they are committed to building a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship in the 21st century, old problems such as Taiwan, Tibet and human rights are as intractable as ever while new problems are bound to emerge.
It will not be easy for this new partnership to work. But if it doesn’t, then the outlook for the resolution of world issues in the 21st century will be bleak.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.