Expectations were low when President Barack Obama started his China trip Monday, less than a week after Democrats were trounced in the midterm elections. “Lame duck swims to Asia” was the headline the Washington political news website Politico put on the story.
Yet upon his departure Wednesday from Beijing, Obama could claim some trophies from his visit: He’d landed several agreements with his hosts, including a first-ever commitment by China to control its greenhouse gas emissions.
“I would describe this as the most successful multilateral summit of his presidency,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia program of Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. He said it was impressive that the White House had been able to nail down some deals late in Obama’s visit to Beijing, as opposed to having concluded them days or weeks earlier.
Other analysts were less effusive, noting that tensions were still on display between the world’s two most powerful countries, most publicly during a news conference Wednesday by Obama and President Xi Jinping. Even so, some agreed the meeting had defied expectations.
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“From the standpoint of U.S.-China relations, President Obama’s trip to Beijing has gone better than expected,” said Don Emmerson, the head of the Southeast Asia program at Stanford University.
Emmerson called it significant that, aside from the climate pact, the two sides could reach agreement on lowering global tariffs on high-technology products, lessening the chance of escalation during encounters between their countries’ militaries and lengthening visas for Americans and Chinese traveling to each other’s countries.
“ ‘Declaration’ is not ‘implementation,’ but these are encouraging signs of a welcomed willingness on both sides to work together,” Emmerson said. He added that he'll be watching to see whether “this productive but fragile comity” continues as Obama attends the East Asia Summit in Myanmar on Thursday and then travels Saturday to Australia for the G-20 summit of industrial and emerging-market nations.
Obama and Xi held their sixth formal meeting of the past two years Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. During their talks, Obama said, he pressed Xi on human rights, allegations of cybertheft, unfair trade practices and China’s exchange rates. He also commended Xi for China’s help in responding to the Ebola crisis and countering terrorism, as well as recent talks to normalize relations with Japan and “ease tensions” in the region.
“If the United States is going to continue to lead the world in addressing global challenges, then we need to have the world’s second largest economy, and most populous nation on Earth, as our partner,” Obama said in comments to reporters after the meeting.
Xi and Obama’s news conference took an unusual awkward turn when the only foreign reporter allowed to ask questions peppered Xi with a series of inquiries. Under the format, only one reporter from China was allowed to ask questions, along with one foreign reporter, who turned out to be Mark Landler from The New York Times.
In a lengthy inquiry, Landler asked Xi about recent examples of anti-American rhetoric in China, the protests in Hong Kong and China’s denial of visas to New York Times reporters in apparent retaliation for investigative reports on the wealth of Chinese leaders. This created the rare situation of a Chinese leader being questioned by a foreign journalist, with his reaction streamed live on Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong media outlet usually available to Chinese netizens. The news conference wasn’t broadcast on government-controlled CCTV.
Xi initially waved off the questions, allowing a reporter from China Daily to ask one about the country’s approach to world affairs. Xi then appeared to recite a prepared statement, sticking to the line, also used by Obama, that the world’s two greatest powers do not face an inevitable clash economically or militarily.
“Both President Obama and I believe that when China and U.S. work together, we can become an anchor of world stability, and the propeller of world peace,” said Xi, speaking in Chinese with his words translated by a government interpreter.
Then Xi, the son of a Communist Party leader during the Mao era, harshened his tone as he turned to some of Landler’s questions. He called the pro-democracy occupation in Hong Kong an “illegal movement” that would be dealt with by Chinese law. “Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion,” Xi said.
He also obliquely addressed questions about press freedoms and the visa issue, although in a way that left many confused. He used an analogy about a car broken down on the highway and the responsibility for fixing it. “In China, we have a saying: The party which has created the problem should be the one to resolve it,” said Xi.
For his part, Obama tried to dodge the Hong Kong questions, acknowledging U.S. interests for a freer society in the former British territory but calling them “issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide.” He also came back to the potential for China and the U.S. to lead the world on issues it agrees on, even if it disagrees on others.
“The carbon-reduction agreement we just announced is a perfect example of why a strong U.S.-China relationship is so critical,” he said.
That agreement, announced early Wednesday in Beijing, instantly became worldwide news, partly for its symbolic value. The United States and China are the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the world’s emissions. Their agreement to cap and cut emissions puts pressure on other countries to join in an international climate deal, the focus of a summit next year in Paris.
Under the pact, the United States has agreed to cut net emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels in the next 11 years. China has agreed for the first time to set limits on its own emissions, gradually reducing fossil fuels so that its emissions would peak “around 2030,” possibly earlier, and then drop as the country transitions to non-coal sources of power.
Connelly, of the Lowy Institute, said the climate pact was significant, partly because it showed that Obama could make progress internationally even without the support of Congress, which will be fully controlled by Republicans during the remainder of his term.
“This suggests to me that Obama will redouble his efforts on foreign policy the next two years,” said Connelly. “He can get a lot done. He is still president of the United States.”
Some environmentalists, however, are disappointed that the U.S. didn’t press China to commit to deeper reductions in emissions, saying the “around 2030” date in the pact is mushy and already achievable by China under its current trajectory. Xi also had little to say about the pact Wednesday, raising questions about whether China would implement the promised reductions.
Before hosting Obama and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beijing made an all-out effort to reduce air pollution. Factories were supposedly idled and cars kept off the streets, and still the air quality index neared 300 early Tuesday, a severely unhealthy level for those exposed to Beijing’s air.
Fortunately for Xi and Obama, a strong wind blew in Wednesday. That act of nature allowed Obama to board his plane and fly out of Beijing in clear blue skies, as if choreographed by his Chinese hosts.
(Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @sleavenworth.)