The Dragon in the Room: The Place of China in Obama's Asia Trip

He's not visiting the country, but commentators see U.S.-Chinese politics throughout the tour

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To what extent is Obama's Asia trip actually about a country he isn't visiting--namely, China? That's been a theme in commentary the past few days as the president has traveled through India and Indonesia. Here's the debate on why the administration might be trying to cozy up to China's neighbors, why the neighbors may welcome it, and whether this subtle geo-political dance is wise.

  • A Reversal  "After spending the early part of his administration kowtowing to China and neglecting India (the two weren't unrelated)," writes National Review's Rich Lowry, the "first leg" of the Asia trip was about India, where Obama "forged closer ties to the robustly democratic nation of 1 billion people, partly as a hedge against the rise of a China resistant to his blandishments."
  • The Rhetoric Certainly Has India Wondering  "Most tantalizingly, and without much elaboration," adds Sumit Ganguly, also at National Review, "he suggested that India should now play a wider role in East Asia. This last suggestion has left many Indian commentators a bit bemused. Some have openly wondered if it is a broad hint that India join the U.S. in a hedging strategy against an increasingly assertive People's Republic of China."
  • Let's Call it 'Pre-Containment' or 'Containment-Lite,' suggests The New York Times' Tom Friedman--ever ready with the slogans. No one wants to "mention the C-word," he says, but the facts, as he sees them, are these:
All of China's neighbors want China to know, as the sign says: "Don't even think about parking here." Don't even think about using your growing economic and military clout to just impose your claims in border disputes and over oil-rich islands in the South China Sea. Because, if you do, all of China's neighbors will be doomed to become America's new best friends--including India. ... If China plays it smart, Indian-American relations will never go beyond pre-containment. But if China doesn;t play it smart, Obama to India could one day become the new Nixon to China: my enemy's enemy is my new best friend.
  • This Is a Really Bad Idea  Yasheng Huang at Foreign Policy goes through the ways in which the U.S. is slowly producing a more and more hostile Chinese public, which has always had a "strong suspicion that the United States has a well-crafted, carefully thought-out, and coherent strategy to contain China." He thinks that, unfortunately, "Obama's current trip to Asia--to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, conspicuously skipping and encircling 'one big red dot,; as one reporter recently put it--is likely to fan this conspiracy theory even further." Blaming Chinese popular hostility on the government influence over media is a little too easy, Huang seems to think: " the United States has consistently failed to communicate its intentions and its actions to the broader Chinese public, which, despite the infamous Great Firewall, is enjoying newfound media freedom thanks to the Internet." He points to a few areas in which to improve: current human rights rhetoric, he argues, ignores plenty of human rights issues that Chinese citizens really do care about in favor of those they perceive to be "challenging Chinese cultural values and political norms." He also points out that the talk about currency has been ignoring the Chinese perspective.
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