With North Korea again raising the specter of war in the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan slipping out of control, continued unrest in Pakistan, a defiant Iran and a deepening global financial crisis, it was not surprising that US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), would strike an amiable tone during their first telephone conversation late last week.
During their conversation, Obama may also have gone out of his way to repair whatever damage his earlier comments about Beijing manipulating its currency may have caused to Sino-American ties.
After all, if any of the challenges listed above — to which we might add counterterrorism and climate change — are to be resolved, a weakened US will need the help of the rising Asian giant. Aside from the economy, Afghanistan — a neighbor of China — stands out as a principal area where the US may need help, largely as a result of the impact of the global financial crisis on contributing NATO countries, many of which are nearing the end of their commitments to Afghanistan. Despite Beijing’s reservations about intervening in the internal affairs of states, Washington could very well call upon it to lend an unofficial hand.
Hu, meanwhile, must have been at his charming best during the conversation, as Obama’s first week in office showed signs — with, among others, the announced closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and an end to questionable interrogation techniques by the CIA — that human rights could be at the forefront of his administration’s policies. Beijing may also have been uncomfortable with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last week accused the administration of former US president George W. Bush of having placed too much emphasis on the economic sphere when dealing with Beijing, a hint that the new White House could very well be responsive to calls by Congress and rights organizations that Washington apply more pressure on China in the realm of human rights.
At this juncture, it is hard to tell which direction Obama will choose when it comes to China. It would not be the first time, however, for a new administration, fresh with revolutionary zeal, to see its ideals flounder on the shores of economic and geopolitical realities, which in today’s circumstances is, sadly, the likelier scenario. The list of challenges is simply too long for an administration facing serious unemployment at home and a series of commitments abroad to risk alienating an important ally like China.
Indeed, Pyongyang, another regime that bristles whenever US presidents raise the human rights issue, may have timed its latest flare-up in the Korean Peninsula to add to the external pressures on Obama. For whether Obama likes it or not, the Bush administration made Beijing an indispensable ally in the six-party talks on North Korea, and he will have no choice but to rely on China if all-out war is to be avoided between the two Koreas.
Hu — and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for that matter — are fully aware of Obama’s dependence and will strategically apply the pressure whenever it suits their needs.
The coming year will be a true test of leadership for Obama. But one thing is certain: If maintaining smooth relations with China helps repair the ailing US economy, create much-needed jobs at home and alleviate the US’ heavy burdens abroad, chances are that relations between Hu and Obama will be no bumpier than they were between Hu and Bush.