Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land begins with his early political career and ends with a Navy SEAL team killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. The 700-page account thus represents the first volume of his presidential autobiography. But it also gives an indication of how little China was on his mind during his early years in power. It is not until page 338 that the Chinese get a substantive mention, when Obama points out: “No nation in history had developed faster or moved more people out of abject poverty.”
In fact only three sections of the memoir see the relationship with China come in for more detailed commentary: that relating to the G20 meeting in March 2009; Obama’s Chinese state visit that same year; and the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009.
Obama’s perspective on American policy towards China seems measured, all the more so in a context in which relations have become much more turbulent under the presidency of Donald Trump. But it is the personal interactions with China’s leaders and its people that provide some of the more interesting points, not just on the personalities involved, but also in how Obama interprets their behaviour.
Ahead of meeting his opposite number at the G20, Obama fleshes out his broader strategic views. “Once little more than a hub of low-grade manufacturing and assembly for foreign companies looking to take advantage of its endless supply of low-wage workers, China now boasted topflight engineers and world-class companies working at the cutting edge of advanced technology.”
None of that is especially insightful, although Obama takes the realistic view that his own nation’s economic primacy may not last forever. “Given its growth rate and sheer size, China’s GDP at some point was guaranteed to surpass America’s,” he notes.
Coupled with Beijing’s investment in its military, China was clearly set to challenge the status quo, Obama thinks: “The conclusion felt obvious: if any country was likely to challenge US preeminence on the world stage, it was China. And yet watching the Chinese delegation operate at the G20, I was convinced that any such challenge was decades away.”
He describes (then) President Hu Jintao as “a nondescript man” content to rely on pages of prepared talking points “with no apparent agenda beyond encouraging continued consultation and what he referred to as ‘win-win’ cooperation”.
Obama admits he was most preoccupied with the global financial crisis and the ‘Great Recession’ that his administration had inherited. In this respect he was more impressed with Premier Wen Jiabao who “spoke without notes and displayed a sophisticated grasp of the current crisis; his affirmed commitment to a Chinese stimulus package [which amounted to Rmb4 trillion] was probably the single best piece of news I would hear during my time at the G20”.
It is another 140 pages before China comes up again in detail, this time as Obama describes his debut trip to the country as American leader.
There are revealing remarks about security concerns: “We were instructed to leave any non-governmental electronic devices on the plane and to operate under the assumption that our communications were being monitored.” He adds: “Some members of our team dressed and even showered in the dark to avoid the hidden cameras we could assume had been strategically placed in every room.”
Marvin Nicholson, Obama’s long-serving travel director, took a different approach, keeping the lights on and walking around his room naked – “whether out of pride or in protest wasn’t entirely clear,” the president comments.
He also recounts: “Occasionally the brazenness of Chinese intelligence verged on comedy. At one point, my commerce secretary Gary Locke was on his way to a prep session when he realised he’d forgotten something in his suite. Upon opening the door, he discovered a pair of housekeepers making up his bed while two gentlemen in suits carefully thumbed through the papers on his desk… No one brought up the incident when we sat down later for our official meeting with President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation. We had too much business to do with the Chinese – and did enough of our own spying on them – to make a stink.”
Obama says the incident was telling: “This about summed up the state of US-China affairs at the time.” On the surface the relationship looked stable but long-simmering mistrust lurked behind the diplomatic niceties.
Chinese leaders, he notes, had long followed a policy of avoiding foreign disputes when they could, following Deng Xiaoping’s counsel to “hide your strength and bide your time”. Even protests over flashpoints like arms sales to Taiwan were “ritualised” in Obama’s view, so as not to disrupt Chinese access to the US market.
“This strategic patience had helped China husband its resources and avoid costly foreign adventures. It had also helped obscure how systematically China kept evading, bending or breaking just about every agreed-upon rule of international commerce during its ‘peaceful rise’.”
Obama lists the concerns of his administration during his first year in office. Many are familiar, ranging from currency manipulation to non-tariff barriers and theft of IP from US companies. But he is able to put most of this in historical context: “None of this made China unique. Just about every rich country, from the US to Japan, had used mercantilist strategies at various stages of their development to boost their economies. And from China’s perspective you couldn’t argue with the results.”
“What was surprising was Washington’s mild response,” he reckons. “By time I was elected there was a rough consensus among foreign policy elites and big party donors: instead of engaging in protectionism, America needed to take a page from the China playbook. If we wanted to stay number one, we needed to work harder, save more money, and teach our kids more math, science, engineering – and Mandarin.”
Obama’s view is that Clinton and Bush “made the right call” in encouraging China’s integration into the global economy. But that process had allowed China to game the international system “too often at America’s expense”.
“Automation and advanced robotics may have been the bigger culprit in the decline of US manufacturing jobs but Chinese practices – with the help of corporate outsourcing – had accelerated these losses.”
Yet Obama recalls that he found himself in tricky negotiating territory on that first diplomatic visit to Beijing – with a need for Chinese cooperation to remedy the global economic crisis (and also to keep buying US government debt).
“I’d promised to fight on US workers behalf for a better deal on trade, and I intended to keep that promise. With the world’s economy hanging by a thread, though, I had to consider when and how best to do that. To pull ourselves and the rest of the world out of recession we needed China’s economy growing, not contracting. China wasn’t going to change its trading practices without firm pressure from my administration; I just had to make sure we didn’t start a trade war that tipped the world into a depression and harmed the workers I vowed to help.”
Obama makes plain that even at this point he was thinking of a concept like the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a trading bloc (that would exclude China but welcome America’s Asian allies) as part of a diplomatic ‘pivot’ to Asia.
His recalls that his meeting in Beijing with President Hu Jintao was “a sleepy affair” with the Chinese leader reverting to reams of prepared remarks. “Efforts to break the monotony with personal anecdotes or jokes usually resulted in a blank stare,” he confides.
The only moment when Hu was knocked off track was when Obama raised one of his main foreign policy priorities: getting sanctions on Iran passed by the UN Security Council. He threatened a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which could have consequences for China’s oil supplies. That got a reaction. “He was non-committal on sanctions, but judging by his shift in body language and the furious note-taking by his ministers, the seriousness of our message on Iran got his attention.”
A subsequent meeting with Wen focused more on economic issues, with China’s premier keen to emphasise that a third of Chinese still lived in severe poverty.
Obama shows some empathy again, this time about the challenges faced running a country of China’s size and complexity. “I tried to put myself in Wen’s shoes: having to integrate an economy that straddled the information age and feudalism while generating enough jobs to meet the demands of a population the size of North and South America combined.”
However, when Obama raised complaints about currency manipulation, Wen simply asked for a shopping list of the US goods that the Chinese should buy more of. Obama says he wanted more of a “structural solution” – “I felt like I was haggling over the price of chickens at a market stall [with Wen] rather than negotiating trade policy”. His broader conclusion is an interesting one: “For China’s leaders foreign policy was purely transactional. How much they gave and how much they got would depend not on abstract principles of international law but their assessment of the other side’s power and leverage.”
Of course, that kind of approach would align better with the instincts of his successor, Donald Trump…
Obama also visited Shanghai during the trip where he met several hundred college students, mostly from the city’s elite universities. He describes them as “courteous and enthusiastic” but says that their questions “had little of the probing irreverent quality that I was used to hearing from youth in other countries. (‘So what measures will you take to deepen the close relationship between cities of the US and China?’ was about as tough as it got.)”
But after chatting one-on-one with some of the students towards the end of the event, he concludes that “at least some of their earnest patriotism wasn’t simply for show”, rationalising that they were too young to have experienced the horrors of the past (such as the Cultural Revolution) and that type of history “wasn’t taught in school and I doubted their parents talked about it”.
Again this leads to some empathetic analysis: “If some of the students chafed against the government blocking their access to websites, they likely experienced the full weight of China’s repressive apparatus mainly as an abstraction, as remote from their personal experience as the US criminal justice system might be to middle-class, suburban kids back home.
“For the entirety of their lives, China’s system had lifted them and their families along an upward trajectory, while from a distance, at least, Western democracies seemed stuck in neutral, full of civil discord and economic inefficiency.”
Obama’s final encounter with the Chinese leadership in 2009 takes place in December at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where Obama dropped in for a day (marvelling at the irony of his personal carbon footprint).
“Wen Jiabao had brought a giant delegation with him, and the group had thus far been inflexible and imperious in meetings, refusing to agree that China should submit to any form of international review of their emissions, confident in the knowledge that through their alliance with Brazil, India and South Africa, they had enough votes to kill any deal.”
Hillary Clinton had come up with an interim agreement that would extend beyond the Kyoto Protocol’s expiry in 2012 and Obama had got the major European nations to sign up to it. He wanted Wen to do so too, but faced two immediate problems. A snowstorm in Washington meant that Air Force One had to be “wheels up in two and a half hours” and he couldn’t find Wen, who was rumoured to have left for the airport.
When Wen was eventually located in a conference room with the leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa, the Americans rushed off to find him, nodding at surprised Chinese security officials as they walk by. “‘You ready for me, Wen?’ I called out, watching the Chinese leader’s face drop in surprise. Before anyone could object, I grabbed an empty chair and sat down.”
Obama then explains to Wen and the others that the Europeans were prepared to accept the interim agreement if the group in the room would support clauses promising independent verification that countries were meeting their greenhouse gas reduction commitments.
“One by one the other leaders listed off why that proposal was unacceptable; Kyoto was working just fine; the West was responsible for global warming and now expected poor countries to impede their development to solve the problem; the verification system was a violation of sovereignty”.
After about half an hour of this, Obama says he leaned back in his chair and looked directly at Premier Wen. “I’ve got my own megaphone, and it’s pretty big. If I leave this room without an agreement, then my first stop is the hall downstairs where all the international press is waiting for the news. And I’m going to tell them I was committed to a big reduction in our greenhouse gases and billions of dollars in new assistance and that each of you decided it was better to do nothing. I’m going to say the same thing to all the poor countries that stood to benefit from the new money. And to all the people in your own countries that stand to suffer from climate change. And we’ll see who they believe.”
This didn’t go down well. As the threat was translated, “China’s burly environmental minister stood up speaking in Mandarin, his voice rising, his hands waving in my direction, his face reddening in agitation. He went on like this for a minute or two, the entire room not quite sure what was happening. Eventually, Premier Wen lifted a slender, vein-lined hand and the minister abruptly sat back down.”
Obama remembers that he asked for a translation but Wen shook his head and whispered something. “The translator nodded and turned back to me. ‘Premier Wen says what the environmental minister said is not important. Premier Wen asks if you have the agreement you’re proposing with you so everyone can look at the specific language again.’”
After another half an hour of haggling a deal was done and Obama boarded Air Force One with 10 minutes to spare. As they took off for Washington, his ‘bodyman’ Reggie Love described his negotiating tactics as “real gangster”.
In fact Love had already initiated one of the more memorable exchanges with his boss, when they visited the Great Wall together the previous month.
He asked the American president why – in spite of the wall – the Ming Dynasty had been toppled. “Internal strife, I said, power struggles, corruption, peasants starving ‘cause the rich got so greedy or just didn’t care,” Obama explained.
“So, the usual, Reggie said. The usual, I replied.”
More insights into Obama’s personal interaction with the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping can be expected in the next volume of his memoirs. Indeed WiC anticipates a lot more pages are likely to be devoted to the changing face of Sino-US relations given how China’s geopolitical and economic influence continued to expand during his second term in office.
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