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Obama must maintain a delicate balance in China

Human rights concerns may be raised in private

President Obama arrived at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai late last night on his first visit to China. President Obama arrived at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai late last night on his first visit to China. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
By Jennifer Loven
Associated Press / November 16, 2009

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SHANGHAI - President Obama is walking a tightrope on his first trip to China, seeking to enlist help in tackling urgent global problems while weighing when and how - or whether - he should raise traditional human rights concerns.

Obama arrived in Shanghai late last night, in a driving rain, hustling through a phalanx of umbrella-holding dignitaries to reach his limousine. Today, the president will hold talks with local politicians and conduct an American-style town hall discussion with Chinese university students.

Thirty years after the start of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the ties are growing, but remain mixed on virtually every front.

The two nations are partnering more than ever on battling global warming, but they still differ deeply over hard targets for reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. China has supported sterner sanctions to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it still balks at getting more aggressive about reining in Iran’s uranium enrichment.

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China is a huge and lucrative market for American goods and services, and yet it has a giant trade surplus with the United States that, like a raft of other economic issues, is a bone of contention between the two governments.

The two militaries have increased their contacts, but clashes still happen and the United States remains worried about a dramatic buildup in what is already the largest standing army in the world.

Amid all that, Obama has adopted a pragmatic approach that stresses the positive, sometimes earning him criticism that he is being too soft on Beijing, particularly in the area of human rights abuses and what the United States regards as an undervalued Chinese currency that disadvantages US products.

Obama recognizes that a rising China, as the world’s third-largest economy on the way to becoming the second and the largest foreign holder of US debt, has shifted the dynamic more toward one of equals.

For instance, Chinese questions about how Washington spending policies will affect the already soaring US deficit and the safety of Chinese investments now must be answered by Washington.

Second, Obama wants not to anger Beijing, but to encourage it to pair its growing economic and political clout with greater leadership in solving some of the most urgent global problems, including a sagging economy, warming planet, and the spread of dangerous weapons.

Obama has talked warmly toward China, particularly in the days leading up to his visit.

“The United States does not seek to contain China,’’ Obama said in a speech from Tokyo on Saturday. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.’’

One test of the line Obama is walking will be human rights, including religious freedom in the officially atheist nation.

Aides said in advance that Obama would raise several human rights issues privately with Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao.

But it was unlikely that he would repeat those messages too stridently in public, out of concern for angering his hosts. Even before arriving in China, for example, he declined to get specific about human rights concerns with China in his Tokyo speech and eschewed the traditional presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama while he was in Washington in June.

Obama said he would see the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader later, a decision welcomed by Chinese officials who pressure foreign governments not to meet with the Dalai Lama and spurn Tibetans’ desires for autonomy from Chinese rule.

Obama was to travel from Shanghai to Beijing for the pomp and substance of a two-day state visit hosted by Hu. The president will visit the Forbidden City, home of former emperors in Beijing, and the centuries-old Great Wall outside the capital.

Before leaving Shanghai, the president was scheduled to meet with Chinese university students, which the White House hoped would allow him to telegraph US values - through its successes and failures - to the widest Chinese audience possible.

The particulars of the town hall, including whether it could even be called one, were the subject of delicate negotiations between the White House and the Chinese up to the last minute.