Obama’s Unspoken Goal in China: Assert Global Leadership Role

President Obama Takes on U.S.-China Relations at APEC 2:37

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting in Beijing on Wednesday for deep discussion and what will be a tense dance for two countries that are gigantic economic partners, but ideologically virtually diametrically opposed.

On Tuesday, at the ceremonial opening of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama said he wanted to take U.S. and China's "relationship to a new level."

"When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively, the whole world benefits," Obama said. And on Monday, Chinese news service Xinhua published an interview in which Obama "absolutely" rejected the notion that the U.S. hopes to "contain" China.

I think the most important thing is just to remind everybody that he is still the president of the United States.

Obama is on a three-country tour to Asia to attend the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and G20 summits, with the goal to get free-trade agreements moving forward and to have "direct and candid" discussions over China's human rights record.

But some note that an unstated objective of the tour is to be seen at home and abroad as "leader of the free world," and to show that the much-hyped "pivot to Asia" strategy announced in 2012 hasn't been abandoned in the face of the crisis in Ukraine, the battle against ISIS, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"I think the most important thing is just to remind everybody that he is still the president of the United States," said James Goldgeier, dean of American University's School of International Service. "He still leads the most powerful country in the world ... and it gives an opportunity to remind everybody of that."

But Goldgeier also noted that "it gives an opportunity to remind everybody that a major thrust of his foreign policy has been a rebalancing of his foreign policy, toward Asia (and away from Europe and the Middle East). That’s been a difficult policy this year to articulate, because you've had Ukraine and then ISIS... and Ebola, so the trip gives him an opportunity to remind everybody that this is a significant part of his strategy."

Beijing remains skeptical of Obama's intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster U.S. economic ties in the region as a way of countering China's rise.

"I think that consensus is growing that there's going to be more viscosity, more tension with China over the next few years," Michael Green, an Asia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press. He added that Xi has proved to be "less accommodating" and "tougher than expected" in his dealings with the U.S.

White House officials insist Obama would take a tough line with Xi on issues like cybersecurity and Beijing's military actions in the South and East China Seas that have put neighbors on edge.

“There's no mystery in our position on these issues, there's no mystery on the Chinese position,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. “When there's an opening, we take it, and we run through that opening, we work together. And when there's a difference, we're just going to keep raising it repeatedly with China.”


— Kristen Welker in Beijing and Hasani Gittens in New York