President Obama's China Trip: Final Thoughts

President Obama departed China today after quite a productive two days. The major accomplishments on the climate front were the series of agreements signed yesterday. While expectations for Copenhagen have been somewhat lowered – towards a “political” deal rather than completing all the work needed for the full-scale treaty – both Obama and Hu indicated they were working to get to a good deal.

Overall, the press coverage has focused on Obama’s conciliatory tone, in contrast to what reporters suggest was a more combative tone from earlier U.S. presidential visits. But as James Fallows argues in his Atlantic Monthly blog, that difference may not be as great as people think. Obama has perhaps departed from previous presidents more on tone than on substance, especially when it comes to speaking out on universal rights. Obama phrases his arguments respectfully, but continues to express a view that openness, religious freedom and other human rights are universal values. Moreover, this approach might be more convincing to China’s youth, who are proud of China’s achievements and highly patriotic. In any case, a refreshing style might prove effective.

In addition to expanding scientific cooperation, Obama also announced a goal to increase US students in China to 100,000, a point Fallows also noted in his blog. That positive news comes in the context of a recent trend of students increasingly choosing to study abroad in in “non-traditional countries,” i.e. beyond the U.K. and France. In fact, the State Department just announced that the number of Americans studying in both China and India increased by over 20% last year.

If the U.S. is going to benefit from the expanded cooperation on green technology, we need a much larger core of Americans who are comfortable working internationally. Expanding student programs, along with greater research cooperation are keys to making this happen.

The President completed his visit to Beijing with a stop at the Great Wall. I wonder whether either U.S. Ambassador to China Huntsman or Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong, who accompanied him, pointed out that the trees around the Great Wall are a small sampling of one of China’s best environmental success stories. If you look at old photos of the Great Wall near Beijing, it is surrounded by seemingly barren desert and often there are even camels in the photographs. China in 1949 had only 8.6% forest cover. Today the number is over 19%, and the Great Wall near Beijing is surrounded by trees.

Photo by EnglishGirlAbroad, courtesy of a Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License.