Success of visit can't be read in black and white

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2009, 12:00am

Go, the strategy game invented in China more than 2,500 years ago, is known for its simple rules and parity. Two players alternately place black and white stones on a grid, with the simple objective of winning a larger portion of the board.

But as any Go player will testify, it may be the most complex of games, involving constant reading ahead, plotting and strategising.

So the set of Go that US President Barack Obama bore as a gift for President Hu Jintao last week may symbolise, to a certain degree, the character of Sino-US relations over the coming years.

Two of the world's greatest powers have finally sat as equals at the same table, in a relaxed manner. But they will be involved in constant manoeuvring to capture or save stones, always mindful of the overall board.

To a visibly annoyed White House, the overseas media focused on how Obama was 'harmonised' by the mainland leadership, accusing the US president of shying away from conflict and failing to gain concessions on key issues such as the currency and Iran's nuclear programme, while appearing weak on human rights.

For many overseas analysts, the much-hyped joint statement issued after the Obama-Hu meeting was more of a bland summary of issues, lacking substance.

Meanwhile, the mainland media gloated about the success of Obama's visit, highlighting his comments that the US would not seek to 'contain' China and the 'many good tidings' from the trip, including a promise by both sides to build a 'positive, co-operative, and comprehensive' relationship for the 21st century.

With Beijing appearing to have more leverage, Washington understandably refrained from its past practice of lecturing China on human rights and press freedom. But the overseas media may be too pessimistic and the official media too optimistic.

It is true that Obama's first visit to China failed to produce any breakthrough on key issues, but the Obama-Hu meeting nonetheless has historical significance.

The joint statement covered a wide range of issues, much more than the meetings of previous US presidents and mainland leaders. Its significance stemmed from the fact that talks have risen above issues concerning bilateral ties, such as Taiwan or trade, to address global challenges including the financial crisis, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change.

From this perspective, Obama has done an effective job in nudging China towards taking a bigger role in and accepting more responsibility in international affairs.

China's reticence in this area is well known, and this was made plain even during Obama's meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao , who dismissed the idea of the so-called G2 to tackle global issues and said the mainland was still a developing nation with huge problems.

The tenet behind China's foreign policy has always been to avoid taking the lead in international affairs and instead focus on stimulating the economy and attain the goal of Chinese people living middle-class lives by the middle of this century.

But the rapid rise of its economic influence has pushed the leadership to become more active in international issues, whether it likes it or not. To guard its economic interests as it makes huge investments and gobbles up assets overseas, the mainland has already found itself at the forefront. One example is Beijing's decision to take a leading role in combating piracy off Somalia, and another is its increasingly vocal push for reforms of financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

Perhaps a better barometer to measure the success of Obama's visit is to gauge progress on issues to be discussed at the series of scheduled strategic and economic talks attended by leading officials from both countries. The next one is to be held in Beijing.

There are also issues on which Beijing cannot cave in. While more and more mainland officials have come to realise that making the yuan more flexible is the way forward for the long term, they worry about the impact of a stronger yuan on the economy in the short term. However, Chinese leaders realise they can do a great deal to stimulate domestic consumption.

With the Chinese and American leaders vowing to tackle global issues, particularly Obama's vow not to contain Beijing, the issue of Taiwan, a constant source of tension, appears to have receded into the background. But it is too early to assume that would be the case. As some mainland analysts have pointed out, Taiwan will continue to be the most sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.