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Obama seeking China's co-operation

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Beijing

Barack Obama (R) with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping at Beijing airport - 16 November 2009
Can Barack Obama nudge China into a more active global role?

Speaking in Japan at the start of his East Asia tour, US President Barack Obama signalled his intention to reach out to China.

"The United States does not seek to contain China," Mr Obama said. "On the contrary, the rise of a strong and prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

The fact of China's growing influence on the world stage is something President Obama is having to grapple with.

On Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the symbolic centre of the Chinese nation, people seemed sure this presidential visit will be different from previous ones.

"Because of the current economic crisis, the United States needs China's co-operation in many areas," said Mr Ma, who works in the shipping business.

"Previous US presidents came to China with an arrogant attitude, lecturing us. But with President Obama it's different, he's coming to China to seek our help."

And 27-year-old Wang Xiongbin, who works in real estate, agreed: "After staging the Olympic Games and our 60th anniversary parade here, foreigners now see China as a strong power.

"Obama is definitely hoping to build better relations with China, trade-wise, diplomacy-wise, co-operation-wise. He's definitely going to be softer than President Bush was."

Transformed country

At its most basic level China matters because of the growing power of its economy.

Victor Gao
If China and the United States can not see eye-to-eye, then... it can not be a peaceful, a stable world
Victor Gao, policy adviser

If you want future profits you need to be in China. And in many other ways too, America now needs China more than ever.

In the 1980s Victor Gao was an interpreter for China's leader Deng Xiaoping. He is now a policy adviser based in China.

"We anticipate on major international issues - either economic, financial, climate change, energy, geo-political, and strategic - if China and the United States can not see eye to eye, then what will be the situation in the world? It can not be a peaceful, a stable world," Mr Gao says.

Reviving the global economy, dealing with a warming planet, securing future energy supplies, limiting the spread of nuclear weapons - these are among the biggest issues facing America's president and none can be tackled without China's help.

Nudging China

David Shambaugh of George Washington University says President Obama both needs and wants China to play a greater role in the world.

"China is now a global actor, literally present on every continent, in space, and even in Antarctica, and on every functional issue, as is the US."

Graph showing US and Chinese GDP

"These are the only two countries in the world that are truly globally engaged, but they are not doing things together," he says.

Encouraging it to be more active on the global stage, in concert with America, is a strategy to nudge China towards being a responsible great power.

But Chinese leaders themselves, getting used to their new status in the world, are cautious.

"China is terribly conflicted internally about what kind of role it should have in the world," Mr Shambaugh says.

"It still sees itself as a developing country with a lot of poverty. There are heated debates inside the Chinese international relations community and the Chinese government about this. That is why the Obama administration is trying to push China into a more assertive and co-operative international role."

Such a grand vision though may mean less focus on other issues, such as human rights.

Dalai Lama dilemma

Ahead of his visit here, President Obama declined to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.

The president has been criticised for appearing to soften before China - the need for constructive talks with China's leaders is more important than a symbolic meeting with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

In a chilly Beijing apartment the Tibetan activist Woeser is typing her internet blog.

Tibet activist and blogger Woeser
Tibet activists like Woesser are disappointed in Barack Obama

She is one of the few voices in China speaking out about Tibet. Mr Obama's decision not to meet the Dalai Lama was, she says, a blow.

"It was a huge disappointment. Also when Hillary Clinton visited China this year she didn't mention a word on Tibet or Chinese human rights issues. And again the same when [US House of Representatives Speaker] Nancy Pelosi came."

She thinks the changing economic relationship between the US and China is the reason for the change.

"Now there's an economic crisis, countries see their economic interests as a priority, human rights need to make way. It is simply that they want to do business with China. But what they are ignoring is not just the human rights situation in Tibet, it's the human rights situation in China in general."

So President Obama will focus instead on trying to forge a strategic relationship with China. And Victor Gao, the former Chinese government translator, says it could one day deliver benefits on many issues, even perhaps in Afghanistan.

"China can really help on these major international issues," Mr Gao says.

"If you leave China aside, I think the whole Afghanistan issue will be much more difficult to handle. Therefore, I think, for the United States to engage China in a sufficient manner, not only economic and financial, but more importantly I would say, political and strategically speaking, is very important."

China helping in Afghanistan may sound unlikely but, as Mr Shambaugh points out, China borders Afghanistan.

Like America it fears instability and violence spreading from there, and getting involved there would transform the way the US and Europe view a rising China.

"Afghanistan is an opportunity for China to contribute at the security level, by training Afghan police, and contributing at the humanitarian level through building schools, public health clinics and hard infrastructure," Mr Shambaugh says.

"If they were to contribute I think they would be seen in a much more positive light internationally by the countries that are deployed there."

Graph showing US and Chinese trade



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