As Obama Arrives, China Suffers an Identity Crisis

Which China will receive President Barack Obama on his first trip to Asia—the China of growing influence (and foreign-exchange reserves) or the one that acts like an accidental superpower? Obama will be delivering a fairly straightforward message that the two countries must work together to tackle global—and not just bilateral—problems. Washington wants Beijing to assume more responsibility and leadership on everything from the global economic recovery to climate change to nonproliferation to regional-security headaches.

But not all of Beijing's leaders are interested. "China doesn't want to lead the world—it doesn't even want to be seen as a leader of the developing world," says Brookings Sinologist David Shambaugh, who currently lives in Beijing. "The result is that Beijing has multiple personas. It's asking 'what kind of power are we?' "

For its part, the United States has been watching its own leadership tested in the region. In the shadow of China's rise, American clout in the Pacific also declined markedly under George W. Bush's presidency. The dysfunctional new power dynamic—neither party wants to take a back seat for the other but neither wants to seem presumptuous and give offense—is painfully evident as both sides ponder unpalatable options in Afghanistan. Aside from being a quagmire for the U.S. and NATO, the war threatens to bleed over a common border into China and inflame Muslim unrest in the western region of Xinjiang, where Uighur riots took place this summer.

Still, Washington is clear on what it wants. Even as American officials feud internally over how many more troops to send to Kabul or even whether the Afghan government is a reliable partner, they're eager for China to stop free-riding and show more leadership in its own part of the world. Shambaugh thinks China's armed police should train Afghan cops, for example. But Beijing shuns anything close to putting boots on the ground. "Every foreign power that goes in has failed—so why should China join the list of failures?" as Tsinghua University foreign-policy expert Yan Xuetong says. One Chinese Netizen put it more tartly in a chatroom posting: "Now NATO wants China to help wipe it's ass."

The United States and China are also the world's biggest carbon emitters, and as the ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman says, "If our two countries can't get our acts together to combat climate change, nobody else will." Yet Beijing authorities want Washington to bankroll a big chunk of China's anti-pollution technology upgrades, arguing that the United States and other developed countries have this responsibility since they've been belching emissions for a century.

Within Chinese government circles, explains Shambaugh, there is an escalating debate over whether the country should assume the role of a "responsible big power" or just continue practicing the late Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping's more veiled and ambiguous strategy of "biding time, hiding capabilities, but doing some things." Skeptics in the Beijing leadership believe China simply isn't ready to take on much greater global responsibilities—and yet "some people want Beijing to overextend itself precisely so that Chinese growth will be stifled," says Professor Yan. "China is terribly conflicted internally over this issue," Shambaugh says, quipping that when Chinese and American leaders meet next week "maybe there should be a third chair for a psychiatrist to analyze these two psychologically wounded, ambivalent, schizophrenic countries."

To be sure, there's much that the world wants to see Washington and Beijing handle together—especially on the global economic recovery (which requires China to keep buying U.S. Treasury bills) and on grappling with a recalcitrant North Korea. Recognizing that gives them every incentive to whitewash simmering trade disputes over tires, disagreements over the value of each other's currencies, and the failure to agree on how developed and developing countries should tackle global climate change. Such differences will be discussed during Obama's visit, even though nobody expects breakthroughs. (Article continued below...)

But while they agree they really have to get along, there are still major cultural problems keeping them apart. One perennial thorn is that China seeks symbols—a state banquet unmarred by pesky protests, a perfect Great Wall photo op—while America often focuses on substantive "deliverables." So even as Air Force One took off for Japan, the first stop in Obama's Asian overture, American and Chinese authorities were still scrambling to hammer out details of his China visit.

The high point of Obama's China visit, for example, is meant to be a "town hall" meeting with young Chinese in Shanghai—and his aides want it to be broadcast live on Chinese TV and streamed live over the Internet. But Beijing remains nervous about unscripted interactions with ordinary Chinese; the last-minute haggling underscored Beijing's jitters about the issues of freedom of speech and human rights that Obama's team intends to raise. Thursday, State Department officials briefed a number of mostly Chinese bloggers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in an attempt to mobilize the social-media tools that Obama used so successfully to communicate with American voters. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on the bloggers, who asked if Chinese would be able to access news of Obama's visit on Twitter or Facebook, which remain blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

Another telling detail, as Beijing prepared for the state visit, was the sudden appearance of fast-selling T shirts emblazoned with Obama's face topped with a Mao-style green cloth cap. Then, just as swiftly, municipal authorities descended on souvenir shops to confiscate the "Maobama" shirts, apparently worried they might offend American sensibilities. Attendants at one shop in a popular tourist district of Beijing told the "T shirt police" that they were not selling the Maobama souvenirs. Perhaps simply wanting to be seen to be doing something—anything—the authorities instead carted off T shirts featuring Mao Zedong himself.

One reason for all the paranoia is that, at heart, the countries still don't totally understand each other. China's hamfisted style of one-party rule remains at odds with American democracy: "It lies at the heart of the distrust between these two countries," says Minxin Pei, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

So at the same time that China remains uncomfortable with its new role (but craves recognition of its rise), the United States needs real help overcoming global challenges but doesn't want to give offense. Analyze that!