Ties that bind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2009, 12:00am

When Chinese-American physicist Steven Chu was picked by US President Barack Obama as his energy secretary last December, the appointment of the Nobel Prize winner was widely hailed, not least in China, the country his parents left in the 1940s to settle down in St Louis, where he was born.

Similarly, two months later, when Mr Obama picked former Washington State governor Gary Locke, another Chinese-American, as commerce secretary, the choice was welcomed in both the US and China. Again, he was seen as someone who could improve relations between the two countries.

Mr Locke, whose grandfather left China a century ago, built close trade relations with Beijing as governor and later as a lawyer. In 2006, he helped organise President Hu Jintao's visit to Seattle and, last August, he was selected as one of those to carry the Olympic torch in Sichuan province before it reached Beijing.

The appointments of Dr Chu and Mr Locke reflect both a dramatic rise in Asian American political participation and the desire of the Obama administration to reach out to China, using the two men as a bridge.

Last week, both men were in China seeking to strengthen Sino-US ties, especially in the areas of climate change and energy.

'We are both cabinet officials in President Obama's administration and we are both Chinese Americans as well,' Xinhua, the official press agency, quoted Dr Chu as saying in an interview. 'Our roots are in China.'

The two officials were warmly welcomed everywhere they went, with the media pointing out that they were both ethnic Chinese. The two had a 50-minute meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao - an honour not usually accorded to ministerial-level visitors. Their visit followed that of other senior American officials to China, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

While the country of their ancestors was evidently proud of their achievements in the US, Dr Chu and Mr Locke made it clear that they represented American, not Chinese, interests.

The Obama administration has reversed the Bush administration's position and is now willing to accept cuts in its greenhouse-gas emissions and would like China to do the same. Beijing, however, is reluctant to do this, pointing out that the developed countries are responsible for the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere and that China is a developing country whose emissions are still much lower, on a per capita basis, than those of the US.

Dr Chu said in a speech at Tsinghua University - from where both his parents graduated - that unless greenhouse-gas emissions were curtailed, rising sea levels would displace more people in China than in any other country.

Likewise Mr Locke, in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, asserted that Chinese arguments of development were 'of no concern to Mother Nature. She will ignore attempts to explain the sins of the future by pointing out sins others made in the past.'

The mission of both men was to try to persuade China to work with the US to fight climate change by reducing emissions, among other things. Their message, presumably, was more credible because of their Chinese heritage.

They did have some success. The two countries announced the setting up of a clean-energy research centre for joint research and development, with the priority being energy efficiency, clean coal and clean vehicles. Hopefully, even more progress will be made at the first meeting of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, when cabinet members meet for two days in Washington next week.

If China and the US - the world's biggest polluters - can agree on a course of action, the chances of success at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December will be greatly enhanced. If they cannot agree, the world faces a very bleak future.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator