BEIJING — As President Barack Obama embarks on his second trip to China, he and his aides have one item high on their priority list: exorcising the ghosts still lingering from his 2009 trip.
Some clear lessons are being applied to avoid a poor repeat performance this week, including setting expectations very low and skipping the kinds of public events that could lead to the pitfalls encountered five years ago. But that has raised its own questions about the U.S. commitment to China, and whether the wrong things are being sacrificed in order to ward off bad optics.
Press accounts of the November 2009 visit depicted Obama as kowtowing to the Chinese, who themselves were depicted as a declining America’s economic overlords. The president was additionally accused of acquiescing in Chinese censorship during the three-day, two-city tour.
When Obama came away with few tangible results, it fed a narrative of a wet-behind-the-ears American president being outclassed diplomatically by his savvier Chinese counterparts.
“Obama’s first trip to China,” recalled David Dollar, the Treasury Department’s pointman on China until last year, “was a bit of a fiasco with the media.”
Orville Schell of the Asia Society described it in harsher terms. “Obama’s last visit — I was in China at the time — was really like swimming in liquid nitrogen. It would not be good to have that happen again.”
The approach of lowered expectations and few public events has resulted in a very tightly scheduled set of official meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday devoted to U.S.-China relations on the heels of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting. To the surprise of many observers, the U.S.-China portion of the trip is being billed as a state visit despite taking place over less than 24 hours and lacking some of the usual trappings of such a high-level encounter.
There are also no scheduled events with average Chinese citizens and no announced pilgrimages to iconic Chinese cultural sites like the brief visit Obama paid to the Great Wall in 2009. Of course, it’s still possible Obama could mingle among regular people in an impromptu fashion, as Vice President Joe Biden did at a Beijing noodle shop in 2011.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice attributed much of the “compressed” schedule to having “a relatively constrained time frame.” She cited the APEC summit in Beijing Monday and Tuesday as well as other summits taking place Wednesday and Thursday in Burma — the next stop on Obama’s itinerary.
“We won’t have the opportunity to do more, frankly, than what we would do in and around the APEC Summit and in and around the bilateral official state visit,” she said in a conversation with reporters Friday at the White House, adding that “even the state visit is constrained; it’s not as long as it would normally be.” She pointed, for example, to the substitution of a state luncheon on Wednesday for the usual state dinner.
The White House, though, wields considerable influence over the scheduling of international summit meetings, since the U.S. president’s attendance is considered critical to giving such sessions credibility and prestige, and several observers believe the president could and should do more on his trip overseas.
China, however, also puts its own constraints on such visits.
“The first trip didn’t go well. The Chinese simply were not great hosts at that time,” said Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College. “I think that trip did a lot of damage.”
In 2009, China curtailed questions from the press, censored parts of Obama’s remarks and weren’t keen on opportunities for public interaction. The Chinese public’s interest in seeing more of Obama may be part of what led to the rocky trip: a less charismatic leader might not have made the Chinese as skittish.
Still, some China experts, including Obama’s first ambassador to China, see the current president and his aides shortchanging the relationship with the rising superpower. The brevity of his current visit is one symptom of that, they say.
“There really hasn’t been enough bandwidth dedicated to a singularly successful U.S.-China relationship,” Jon Huntsman, who was ambassador during the 2009 visit, told POLITICO. “I think the president early on made the calculation there was no political upside in this relationship and pretty much waved it off and has left it to a certain strategic drift.”
The China-focused leg of Obama’s trip stands in stark contrast to President Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to China, which spanned nine days and took him to five cities. Accompanied by first lady Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea, he visited iconic sites such as the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an and even took a cruise on the Yangtze River in Guilin. (The press corps followed along in a separate boat.)
But current and former White House officials say it’s a mistake to focus solely on the time Obama spends on the ground in China, especially since he saw Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands ranch in California in 2013 and regularly holds meetings with top Chinese leaders at a slew of global summits.
In addition, cabinet officials from both countries often participate in Strategic and Economic Dialogue sessions in Beijing and Washington that broaden government-to-government ties.
Former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that the relationship between the two countries had “matured” and was “at a different level,” meaning that a more prolonged Obama trip “is just not what’s needed now.”
He added, “There’s a level and intensity of engagement that’s very strong at all government levels.”
Many China experts, though, said U.S. officials are paying too little attention to Chinese culture and history if they think that staff- or even Cabinet-level exchanges can substitute for the way a full-scale presidential visit registers in the Chinese psyche.
Li pointed to a speech Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai gave last month noting how Chinese still lament the “century of national humiliation” when the country was under occupation by Western powers and then the Japanese.
“They want to have more respect. This carries a huge weight in the Chinese mindset,” Li added.
U.S. officials publicly branded the 2009 visit as a success and continue to insist that Obama’s talks with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders were productive. However, the White House’s former point person for Asia, Jeffrey Bader, revealed in a 2012 book that aspects of the trip caused internal strife and revealed poor internal communications on the U.S. side.
“Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and I discovered only three hours before the joint press conference that there would be no questions, only statements by the two presidents,” Bader wrote in “Obama and China’s rise.” “Our press advance team had unwisely accepted the Chinese standard practice of refusing questions without raising it to political levels for challenge.”
Another problematic moment came when state media censored Obama’s remarks, ironically, on Web censorship at a town hall at Shanghai University.
“It infuriated the White House, and rightly so,” Huntsman recalled.
“We succeeded in large measure. But in terms of American public perceptions of the trip, the Western media coverage of these events damaged both the trip and the administration’s ability to manage China policy,” Bader wrote.
Obama administration officials are intent on not repeating those mistakes. In advance of this week’s trip, senior officials told reporters that the administration has been pressing hard at all levels for greater press access to Obama and Xi. The issue is particularly sensitive at the moment because in the past year China has refused to renew visas and residence permits for China-based reporters with several U.S. news organizations.
In a departure from what happened in 2009, Rice used a meeting in Washington last month with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to raise the issue of actual questions being asked at the two presidents’ press conference in Beijing, a senior administration official said last week. She also continues to raise the visa issue with the Chinese, the official said.
So far, the Chinese haven’t budged on their opposition to having the two presidents take questions, but U.S. officials said they will be pressing the issue right through this week’s trip.
Hassles such as these make White House officials less interested in pushing for a more prolonged presidential stay in China, said Dollar, now with the Brookings Institution.
“If you’re just going to be bottled up in meetings, and press availability with no questions, can’t get to Chinese people, can’t talk to the university, or do a webchat online, then frankly it’s less attractive,” he said.
The meager amount of time Obama has spent in China is also a by-product and maybe even an intentional consequence of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “pivot to Asia.” That strategy involves devoting more diplomatic, military and economic resources to China’s neighbors.
As part of the pivot, Obama committed to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit every year. That and other travel to Asian allies puts the squeeze on the time available for China.
Practical concerns have also made it difficult for Obama to spend more time in China. During his first term, aides were wary of foreign travel while the U.S. economy was struggling and so many Americans were out of work. And there was a reelection campaign to run.
In addition, events like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and showdowns with Republicans over budget issues prompted repeated cancellation and curtailment of other planned Obama trips to Asia. The cascading series of reschedulings — which continued into April of this year — left little room for a more prolonged visit to China, despite the importance the White House says it places on the relationship.
Huntsman said that despite the obstacles, the U.S. government could and should be investing more in the relationship with China. He also argues that other countries in Asia would welcome it.
“They would applaud us spending more time on the China account,” the former ambassador said. “You must tend to and care for your allies, but if the U.S. and China aren’t firing on all cylinders, they feel the ripples.”