How Obama Tried and Failed to Make Friends with China

Don't expect much from the upcoming summit -- we've been down this road before.

It all seemed so promising. In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen to try to reach an agreement on a legally binding treaty for climate change. The sheer force of Obama's charisma and drive -- he had made climate change a top priority -- coupled with the momentum in the United States and the developed world, made a positive outcome likely: if only he could convince China, the world's biggest polluter, to cut its emissions.

But the summit was a disaster, as the Chinese made it clear that they would not yield. Despite a burst of eleventh-hour diplomacy, personally negotiated by Obama, the final agreement fell far short of creating a new global consensus on stopping global warming. "I think they had high expectations their first year of all the things they could do with China," says the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. "Then, starting with climate change, the disappointments followed one after the other."

On June 7 and June 8, Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in California. China watchers in Washington don't expect much in the way of concrete "deliverables": an agreement to curtail hacking, for instance, or for the U.S. to scale back its "rebalancing" to Asia, a policy that has greatly angered the Chinese. Gone are the days when China would support a U.S. position "while turning its back on its own previously held view," says Roy Kamphausen, a former China hand at the Pentagon.

Xi, meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in preparation for the summit, told his guest that it's time to explore "a new type of great power relationship." What that means is up for debate, but perhaps it's best described as a partnership of equals, with no one side able to effect change on the other without an equally weighty concession. "Yes, both sides have given ground," Hu Xijin, the editor of China's nationalist tabloid the Global Times, said in a phone interview. "And they are both acting with great restraint."

The Copenhagen summit happened as the world was waking up to the fact that China was the great winner of the 2008 financial crisis, emerging with its economy mostly intact. Projections of when China would overtake the United States economically began appearing in greater frequency, and Chinese diplomats began shedding the conservatism and relative timidity that characterized most of the reign of Hu Jintao, China's paramount leader until November 2012. That's the point, notes Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, when most U.S. national security elites woke up to the fact that China could be a problem.

Most of the political gains the United States achieved in Asia since 2009 happened in spite of China, not because of it. The liberalization of Burma and the warming of U.S.-Burma ties, for example, happened in part because of its government's fear of Chinese encroachment. The United States owes its improving relationships with South Korea, Japan, and a host of smaller Asian nations in part to their worries about China's rise. And China's inability to rein in North Korea has tightened the bond between the United States and South Korea, and the United States and Japan.

Cha, an expert on North Korea, believes that the Obama administration's biggest success in handling Pyongyang was "conveying credibly to the Chinese that North Korean provocations are going to elicit a South Korean response" -- and more broadly, that China's actions are alienating its neighbors. (Separately, Japanese officials have mentioned that North Korea is a great excuse for their military buildup, a fact of which Beijing is likely well aware.)

Even those benefits might recede as the State Department returns to its traditional focus on the Middle East. Many of the people I spoke to for this article credited former Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton and her assertive assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, for their outreach to Asia. Since taking office in February, John Kerry has already visited the Middle East four times -- and East Asia once. "I don't think Kerry's going to wake up to this part of the world. All new secretaries want to differentiate from past ones," said Blumenthal, who added, "The Chinese will be quite candid in saying that they're glad Secretary Clinton is gone, and they believe that's good for Chinese national interests -- but that could be a bad thing for U.S. interests." (In one possible sign of drift, the Senate has yet to confirm Campbell's replacement, Danny Russel, who wasn't appointed to the post until May.)

Business ties between China and the United States, which is less of a zero-sum game, are undoubtedly rosier. By the end of 2013, the United States might replace the European Union as China's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade projected to reach $450 billion, Wei Jianguo, former vice-minister of commerce, recently told the Chinese newspaper China Daily. "We've had a few trade successes in the last year, for example when China agreed to open its market to more U.S. movies in February 2012 as well as the United States prevailing over an important WTO case involving steel," said a U.S. official familiar with the planning for the upcoming Obama-Xi meeting, who asked to speak off the record.

Still, those are small gains -- Chinese state-sponsored hacking of U.S. businesses and institutions, including the theft of the designs for dozens of the United States' most sensitive advanced weapon systems, remains a huge concern, and other big-picture trade issues involving the Chinese, such as the slow and steady appreciation of China's currency, were largely resolved multilaterally. Since Obama took office, China's currency gained roughly 10 percent in value, and in May it reached a record high of 6.1537 RMB to the dollar. Arvind Subramanian, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and author of a 2011 book on China's economic dominance, thinks that the RMB has appreciated due to a combination of internal and external factors -- its stated goal of shifting away from exports, for one, and the perception in other developing countries like India, Brazil, and Mexico that China wasn't playing by the rules. "The U.S. can perhaps take some credit for contributing to this general 'China is an outlier' narrative," he says. "But it couldn't use its hard power to change Chinese actions."

Hu, the tabloid editor and well-known Chinese commentator, cites China's RMB appreciation as an example of a time when China considered U.S. interests. "China definitely thinks of American feelings," he said in a phone interview. "Like hacking -- there actually is pressure against hacking," he said. Even though it might not be publicized, "they are cracking down." In response, the United States has not engaged policies "that China won't be able to accept."

And now, both Obama and Xi seem to have the mandate to make changes in the relationship. "I would say the political transitions of both countries in 2012 kept us from other big movements but we're getting better at playing long ball with them," said the U.S. official. "I think cybersecurity and U.S. rebalancing are the issues that will dominate moving forward."

But that doesn't mean anything will be resolved this weekend. Says Cha, "We have plenty of things where we want nine yards, and we don't get that -- we get four yards, if we're lucky."



Turkey’s Secular Awakening

The protests across Istanbul aren’t about Islamism, the elite, or even religion writ large -- they're a call for a real liberal democracy.

The protests that have been convulsing the center of Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the last several days are more than the comeuppance of its intolerably high-handed prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the diversity of the protesters and the nature of their grievances show that Turkey has become a much more liberal society over the decade the ruling AK Party (AKP) has been in power. Turkey has a democracy -- now protestors are demanding a liberal democracy.

Turkey has witnessed big demonstrations before, of course -- but they've always been staged by a single group, defined by either ethnicity or ideology. This is the first time that people from all walks of life have joined forces to constrain the power of their country's leaders.

The changes occurring in Turkey are evident in its new, up-and-coming middle class, whose members have formed the core of the protest movement. A friend of mine -- let's call him Mehmet -- works near Istanbul's Taksim Square, the center of the demonstrations. Mehmet had always been a pretty typical yuppie, more interested in wine-tasting than politics. But since the demonstrations erupted, he has been consumed by them and vows to carry on until Erdogan backs down. Another friend, who teaches at a private college in the coastal city of Izmir, says his best students, all from conservative, prosperous families, were exhausted from their nightly clashes with police. He tells me that taxi drivers and shopkeepers who hail from the Black Sea, like Erdogan's family, have told him they voted for the AKP but have been turned into the party's enemies by the brutality of the police and the prime minister's contemptuous rhetoric. 

Those who have opposed the AKP since it won power in 2000 have always believed that Erdogan and his cohorts are thinly disguised Islamists, intent on using the mechanisms of democracy to impose their values on the rest of the country. Their fears have been bolstered in recent days, as the government has seemingly tried to force them to conform to its religiously inspired conservatism -- most notably through a new raft of laws regulating alcohol. However, the problem with the AKP has never been that it's Islamist -- but that, much like every other party that's ruled Turkey, it's illiberal.

Erdogan has become a caricature of this illiberal style. He has opined that if people want to drink, they should drink ayran, a traditional yogurt drink. He has spoken about building a canal through Istanbul to replace the Bosphorus Strait as a shipping channel, which even he describes as his "crazy project," as if only to underscore that no scheme is beyond his power. More ominously, a record number of journalists have been imprisoned under his watch. He has blamed the current protests on drunks, extremists, and foreign agents. Such behavior has helped the protesters to clarify what it is they actually want -- which is for the power conferred by Erdogan's undeniable electoral mandate to be constrained, as it would be in a liberal democracy.

Turkish governments have always been happy to dictate how to behave in areas that liberal political cultures would regard as off-limits to state intrusion. The state's predilection for intruding into people's private affairs reflects the illiberalism of the wider society. Despite pockets of social liberty, until recently Turkey has remained what political anthropologists have called a "segmentary" society -- individuals are expected to rigidly conform to the mores of their group, while other members of the group are happy to intrude into others' lives to enforce those norms.

When I first moved to Istanbul in 1998, manifestations of this group-oriented conformism were ubiquitous. Though the state has licensed the production of alcoholic drinks since the founding of the Republic, 83 percent of all Turks today are still teetotallers -- a vivid measure of Turkey's cultural distance from Europe. Before the economic growth of the past decade, both credit to buy an apartment or launch a business were in short supply. For almost all Turks, the only way to get access to either was through family connections or by supporting a powerful political party. This fact of life required people to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending their prospective patrons.

From my experience, many Turks manage inevitable differences of opinion with their elders through what might politely be termed prevarication. This tendency, beginning in childhood, has long retarded the competition of ideas at the heart of liberal political cultures.

The cumulative effect of such conflict avoidance is that many Turks have not experienced the constructive potential of conflict that plays out within civil bounds. In Turkey's political life, the lack of experience with constructive, civil conflict takes a number of reactionary forms: Party leaders assume a paternalistic posture toward their supporters, who reciprocate with a loyalty that survives even humiliating electoral defeats. Turks have traditionally displayed an easy tolerance of state restrictions on civil liberties, and share their leaders' inability to consider political compromise or admit misdeeds, such as the Armenian genocide.

But things are changing in Turkey. These days, signs of growing liberalism are everywhere: Ten years ago, I was struck by how rarely anyone on the buses or trains were reading. Even fairly decent hotels often didn't have a reading light next to the bed. In the years the AKP has been in power, book sales in Turkey have tripled. Much of this boom comes from educational books, thanks to the flourishing economy and the funds invested in schools. An unprecedented number of young Turk are now reading novels, which both reflects and nourishes curiosity about the world beyond their own social environment.

Years of fairly steady economic growth under the AKP have vastly expanded opportunities to make a good life without depending on any patronage network -- a form of autonomy that seems to be a precondition for individual liberty.

My friend Mehmet exemplifies the liberated Turk. He grew up in a pokey concrete apartment in a small city in central Anatolia. His father, a former butcher whose only formal education was in a school for prayer leaders, taught him to calm animals before slitting their throats for the annual ritual sacrifice of bayram. He won a scholarship to study tourism in Istanbul, learned English, and now supports his passion for travel and wine with a senior marketing job in a German company. Mehmet has never been much interested in politics, but he has made his own luck in the world and he'll be damned if he's going to sit by quietly while the prime minister and his friends contrive new ways to inflict their values on him and his beloved city.

Turks like Mehmet expect to be treated with respect -- and that includes being consulted on matters that directly affect their daily lives. Such consultation has been entirely absent from the project to bulldoze Gezi Park outside Mehmet's office, and replace it with a faux-Ottoman shopping mall.

President Abdullah Gul -- a gentler, more sophisticated man than Erdogan and the obvious alternative to lead the AKP -- has said the government needs to listen to the people. "The message has been taken," Gul told the protesters, in a statement imploring them to return home. "Democracy is not only about [the] ballot box."

This is a hopeful moment for Turkey. All Turks have been raised to revere the father of the nation, Ataturk, who set Turkey on the path toward becoming a European-style state. Ataturk died in 1938 having made revolutionary changes to Turkish political life, but without having created a liberal political culture. A leader who manages to use the current crisis to help Turkey embrace the constraints on state power at the heart of liberalism would earn himself a place in the country's remarkably sparse pantheon of political heroes.

But if the events now taking place in Turkey come to be regarded as a landmark in its evolution as a liberal European society, as may well happen, their hero will not be a great leader but the thousands of Turks, like my friend Mehmet, who refuse to be dictated to by anyone.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images