President Barack Obama's maiden trip to China will be his first face-to-face opportunity to shape U.S.-China relations -- the bilateral relationship he has labeled "as important as any in the world." It would be easy to sidestep discussion of the United States' more controversial political differences with China and confine the dialogue to polite issues of strategic and economic concern. But taking such an approach would underutilize Obama's superlative skills as a communicator, bridge-builder, and moral beacon. New currents within Chinese society provide an opening for Obama to press Beijing on harder questions. The president's challenge this week will be to walk a fine line between respect for China and pulling all his punches, careful to recognize China's recent achievements while reflecting candidly on American ideals.
In a departure from his White House predecessors, this president has already signaled a more respectful U.S. posture toward China. Since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have felt compelled to point fingers and lecture the Chinese government on human rights (Bill Clinton's "butchers of Beijing" 1992 campaign jab springs to mind). This tendency, an often shrill manifestation of very legitimate concerns, has been perceived in China as the arrogant hectoring of a superpower that sees itself as morally superior.
Such condescension has fueled the growth of a hypernationalistic segment of China's younger generation, the so-called "angry youth," and caused broad swaths of the Chinese public to think that the United States has a conspiracy to "keep China down." It is therefore productive that Obama has changed the relationship's tone, and even erstwhile China critics, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have somewhat adjusted their tone in the new era.
This shift in U.S. approach is partly the result of Obama's "unclenched fist" worldview, but it is also a prudent reaction to China's increasing geopolitical importance.
Now the imperative for the United States is to avoid swinging too far in the opposite direction -- that is, seeming too deferential to China on hot-button political issues. Such a sudden change of heart would appear baldly opportunistic to the Chinese. There is already a nascent perception in Beijing that the United States is only interested in the country's continued financial support and expanding consumer market. A failure to represent American ideals honestly and engage the Chinese on areas of disagreement would risk cementing this impression.
To a certain extent, the Obama administration is already on the record in support of such an approach. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently introduced the catchphrase "strategic reassurance," a new policy framework meant to supplant the Bush-era call for China to become a "responsible stakeholder." According to Steinberg, strategic reassurance requires that both sides "find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military, or economic."