President Obama’s Trip to China

President Obama’s recent trip to China has been called a failure by many policy analysts and media personalities.  The president failed to reach any substantive agreement with Chinese leaders on issues like currency policy, human rights, climate change or Iran’s nuclear program.  Stephen Walt attributes this diplomatic disappointment to American policies and calamities over the last eight years , such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis and large budget deficits(http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/18/chastened_in_china). 

But Mr. Walt ignores the core interests of Chinese leaders, which influence China’s policies much more than US actions.  Top officials in the Chinese Communist Party/Chinese government are focused on maintaining power, and they believe that sustaining economic growth and limiting political freedoms are the keys to success in that regard.  To foster economic development, China’s leaders seek energy resources and high levels of exports.  They do not want to set limits on emissions, let their currency appreciate, or impose sanctions on Iran (a country that is major source of oil and gas for China) because such policies could adversely affect the Chinese economy.  Basic liberties such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to assemble are viewed as sources of instability that could threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power, so Chinese leaders have no interest in promoting Western notions of human rights.

Thus, even if the US were not plagued by two wars, a major economic downturn and large deficits, it is unlikely that American leaders would be able to extract the concessions that they seek from Chinese policymakers.

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