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Obama’s first China visit highlights tricky ties

When President Obama arrives in Shanghai and Beijing next week, he will face a prickly question: How exactly does the United States define its relationship with China?
Image: Hu Jintao, Barack Obama
President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the U.S. ambassador's residence in London in April. The two will meet again during Obama's first visit to China next week.Jason Reed / Reuters File
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When President Obama arrives in Shanghai and Beijing next week, he will face a prickly question that has vexed presidents since Richard M. Nixon first visited Mao Zedong in 1972: How exactly does the United States define its relationship with China?

Over the decades, U.S. leaders have run through a kaleidoscope of terms, from "tacit allies" against the Soviet Union in the early 1970s to "strategic competitors" at the start of President George W. Bush's administration.

When Obama took office, his advisers spent weeks haggling with Chinese officials over what to call a relationship that has left China holding more than $1 trillion of American debt, turned the United States into China's single-biggest export market and enmeshed the nations in an ever-tighter web of mutual dependence.

Washington and Beijing finally came up with a bland characterization, declaring their ties "positive, cooperative and comprehensive." This replaced a Bush-era label that had also defined the relationship as "candid," a word Beijing disliked because it suggested that the two sides might criticize each other.

Such verbal machinations involve far more than semantic quibbling. Words frame how the two sides confront very real issues such as trade, climate change and human rights. "It's something we have always had with the Chinese, dating back to the 1970s," said Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama's senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council. "You can't really go through an administration without having some label that provides a general characterization."

The right words matter
Getting the right words has been the cornerstone of Chinese statecraft and philosophy since the age of Confucius about 2 1/2 millennia ago.

"There must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything," decreed Confucius in the Analects, an ancient compilation of his teachings. "If names are not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried to success." Rectifying names, Confucius said, is the starting point for all sound policy.

Nixon recognized this when, after a long career denouncing Mao and his communist regime, he decided to reach out to Beijing. He first signaled the shift in 1970, when, for the first time, he publicly referred to Mao's domain by its official name, the People's Republic of China. He had previously called it Red China, or worse.

But what should Obama, America's most rhetorically gifted president in decades, call today's China?

How does he describe — and thus deal with — a country that declares loyalty to Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought while boasting one of world's most competitive capitalist economies, a one-party state that censors media and jails dissidents while giving most ordinary Chinese more personal freedom and economic opportunity than they have had in decades, perhaps even centuries?

Obama's visit to China, the third stop on his week-long Asian tour, will be full of symbolic gestures and rhetorical flourishes as he tries to build trust with Beijing and the Chinese public while signaling America's faith in free speech and other liberties.

He is scheduled to attend a state dinner in Beijing hosted by President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, and, like Nixon, tour the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Substantive matters on the agenda include climate change; efforts to fortify a still-fragile global economy; North Korea's nuclear program; the war in Afghanistan, which shares a border with China's Muslim-populated west; and Pakistan, a long-standing ally of China that is at the center of Obama's foreign-policy concerns.

Obama will also hold a town-hall-style meeting with students in Shanghai. But, as with similar events during past presidential visits, the meeting has involved laborious haggling with Chinese officials over who will be allowed to attend and what they will be allowed to discuss.

A phrase ignites debate
While still a senator from Illinois, Obama came up with a relatively clear-cut definition of what China means to the United States, saying, "They're neither our enemy, nor our friend. They're competitors." He later accused Beijing of manipulating its currency and promised to "use all diplomatic avenues available to seek a change in China's current practices."

He has since retreated from such plain speaking and is unlikely to revive it during next week's visit, his first to China. On the rhetorical front, observers will be keeping watch for a seemingly innocuous phrase that has stirred much debate in recent weeks in diplomatic circles: "strategic reassurance."

Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg rolled out that term during what was billed as a major foreign-policy address in September. The core idea, Steinberg said, is a "tacit bargain" in which the United States would assure Beijing that Washington isn't out to curb China's rising power while Beijing would work to ease Washington's concerns about its global intentions.

The phrase triggered much puzzlement and debate. To some China watchers, it seemed to open the door for the Chinese to make demands — such as stopping U.S. arms sales to Taiwan or halting U.S. military reconnaissance off China's coast — saying they need to be strategically reassured.

Chinese officials, however, worried that "strategic reassurance" would require Beijing to do all of the reassuring, leading to a lopsided relationship.

Steinberg's speech, administration officials have since said, was not preapproved by the National Security Council or the State Department. In a Friday speech previewing Obama's trip, Bader, the NSC's chief Asia hand, did not use the term.

'Fraught with attraction'
It is not the first time a U.S. administration has struggled to find its voice on China. Under President Bill Clinton, U.S. officials got so confused and tongue-tied that, during a 1996 visit to Shanghai by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a big banner hailing a Sino-U.S. "partnership for the 21st century" had to be taken down and repainted at the last minute to trumpet their less intimate-sounding "cooperation" instead.

When Jimmy Carter established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, Ronald Reagan denounced China as a "statist monopoly founded on violence and propaganda." Five years later, on his way back to Washington after a state visit to Beijing, he struggled to explain how much China had changed. China, he told reporters, was now merely a "so-called communist country."

Orville Schell, a China specialist who heads the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, said Americans too often "ignore at our peril" the import of their words. "We Americans don't do ritual very well. We don't take it seriously. For the Chinese, it is all-important."

The U.S. relationship with China, Schell said, is "so fraught with attraction and repulsion, love and hate, contempt and worship" that the two countries can perhaps never be truly relaxed partners. "But we are least co-dependents, or perhaps co-victims, because our common fate is more and more inescapable."

Staff writer John Pomfret contributed to this report.