How the U.S.-China Relationship Has Changed

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An undercurrent in commentary about President Obama's three-day trip to China is the anxious, decades-old question: has the Asian giant finally caught up? After debating Obama's town hall speech and negotiations over the trade imbalance, commentators have begun scrutinizing the overall dynamics of the trip. Was Obama as assertive as his predecessors? While there weren't any dramatic face-offs between the American president and his Chinese counterpart, commentators found signs that the U.S.-China relationship has changed. Here's how:

  • 'Equals at Last'  Academic Willy Lam says this visit "will go down in history as a pivotal event in the relations between the two most powerful countries of the 21st century." Specifically: "For the first time, the leaders of the United States and China talked as equals." But Lam says this equality may disappoint the U.S. China, he says, "will use its cloud to advance its agenda," and any hopes that Washington's "conciliatory stance" will result in Chinese toughness on North Korea and Iran will quickly be dashed.
  • Not Equals: China Has the Edge  The BBC's Matt Frei painted the picture in even starker terms. "Something," he writes, "has changed in the chemistry of the world's most important bilateral relationship. America is now more in awe of China than vice versa." In the past few years, he explains, the impotency of "million-dollar smart bombs" against Iraqi homemade explosives in "drinks cans," the "petty in-fighting on Capitol Hill" showing the "limits of democracy in the world's greatest democracy," and the harsh reality of a Great Recession followed by a "jobless recovery" have brought home the once distant awareness of American vulnerability. Meanwhile, China has enacted a "whopping stimulus package that even dwarfs America's" and "established closer ties with countries like Brazil and Peru in what used to be called America's backyard." China will have to find its way through the tricky issues of authoritarianism, Frei says, but for now, the country is looking pretty good.
  • U.S. Conciliatory, But Countries Also Closer  In the Washington Post, Andrew Higgins and Anne Kornblut argue that the big story of the trip was "Ithe United States' newly conciliatory and sometimes laudatory tone." Obama's approach "stood in stark contrast to the journeys of his predecessors," but not so much as a change in policy as reflecting "a dramatic and much bigger change in the power dynamic." But if China's rise is inevitable, perhaps the trip also provided fuel for optimism: "In many ways, the United States and China have never been closer, as reflected in a raft of joint projects outlined during Obama's visit here."
  • Chinese Advantage, American Advantage  The Guardian's Jonathan Fenby is clear: "The Chinese machine is working, whatever the doubts about its sustainability." Obama, too, appeared to be "on the back foot" in his visit. But Fenby argues forcefully against a premature declaration of American decline:
America is still the richer and more powerful nation. Its military is far ahead of the People's Liberation Army. The administration's international fence-restoration means that it can count on an array of allies, whereas China's are few and far between, and founded mainly on money. For all Beijing's efforts to spread its soft power, it cannot hold a candle to America when it comes to popular culture; how many Chinese film stars can most people outside Asia name--other than perhaps Jet Li or Jackie Chan?

Say what you will about delays in closing Guantánamo, but most people would prefer American values to those of a regime that maintains a big repressive apparatus, locks up lawyers who defend ordinary citizens, puts petitioners in "black jails", imposes crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang worthy of British imperialism at its depths and forbids its citizens to watch its national day parade in the streets. Not to mention the control freakery of the system and the restrictions on information.
  • China Has the Edge in Optimism  David Brooks thinks the "manic energy" and "moral materialism" which made America great is now to be found more in China than in the U.S. Americans, he writes, are experiencing a "[crisis] of faith," with far more Chinese optimistic about their country's path than Americans. These more "spiritual" markers of success, he argues, should not be discounted:
It may seem like an ephemeral thing, but this eschatological faith in the future has motivated generations of Americans, just as religious faith motivates a missionary. Pioneers and immigrants endured hardship in the present because of their confidence in future plenty. Entrepreneurs start up companies with an exaggerated sense of their chances of success. The faith is the molten core of the country’s dynamism.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.