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Pivotal Power

December 3, 2009
Reaping the benefits of Obama’s East Asia tour

The American and Chinese leaders. Photo: Al Jazeera

I generally listen carefully when Les Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks. He challenges conventional wisdom with enthusiasm and his policy ideas are often original and useful. But while some observations were on point, his dismissal of President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia struck me as largely off base.

First of all, there were some important deliverables announced during the president’s trip to China, particularly on climate, such as an electric car initiative, a joint clean-energy research center, a partnership on developing clean coal technologies and a collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

Gelb’s critique also didn’t adequately appreciate that President Obama was the first U.S. president ever to attend a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, that important 10-member group of dynamic and growing economies that sits astride the Indian and Pacific oceans.

If that doesn’t count as involving the United States in Asian multilateralism, I don’t know what does. After all, following eight years of perceived slights by Washington while China filled the vacuum with copious diplomacy, the United States has to show up and listen at such forums before our leadership will again be welcomed and trusted.

On China in particular, President Obama’s trip has yielded further progress since he returned. First, on Thanksgiving, China — the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases — pledged to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of its gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

It is a very big deal that Beijing has moved off its long-held position of refusing agree to any firm limits on its carbon emissions. Of course, given China’s economic growth, these targets are not adequate to prevent the 2 degrees of warming scientists tell us we must, but it’s a significant start and farther than many thought China would go.

Moreover, China’s decision will translate into political momentum as negotiators from around the world alight in Copenhagen later this month to develop an international deal to address global warming. And now that China has agreed to a target, in the future it will be that much easier to have discussions about making that target even more ambitious and about helping China develop the capacities needed to measure its emissions and reach that goal.

Beyond this big news, a few days ago, China (and Russia) endorsed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s order that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once-secret uranium enrichment plant. This was the first time the IAEA made such a demand of Iran. China and Russia’s participation in it was a real breakthrough.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called both of these policy shifts the “direct result” of President Obama’s trip. I don’t doubt that, but even if you take into account that causality can be tricky to determine in diplomacy, the Obama trip, at the very least, was a major factor in both of these outcomes.

Today, I feel vindicated in my relatively positive analysis of the president’s trip. Within 10 days of President Obama leaving China, China took two major steps toward being the responsible global steward we want it to become.

As I outlined in a recent report, the United States will not want to accelerate the coming of the day when China will throw its weight around in all issues, but we do need China to help solve international problems and strengthen the international system. Getting emerging powers to do their part will be a vexing challenge for American foreign policy for years to come.

These are victories for Obama’s strategic approach toward China—persistent, tough, quiet diplomacy. We may not see a lot of fireworks, but the president is racking up steady progress with China on very tough problems.

There will be tensions, for sure, and particularly on issues where we diverge, such as human rights, but in one trip, Obama achieved more with China than his predecessor did in eight years on a critical global issue — climate change. Obama is making steady progress on nuclear proliferation as well. I’d call that a worthwhile expense of Obama’s time.

– Nina Hachigian

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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