President Obama’s First Trip to Asia: Engaging with China on Climate Change

As Asia looks forward to President Obama’s trip, China is seeing important clean energy projects on an almost daily basis. Not only do we expect new projects from the President’s trip, but the Asian Development Bank launched a new carbon capture and storage project, and China is looking to buy U.S. solar panels for a new solar base.

With President Obama’s arrival in Asia just days away, the Chinese press is being upbeat but offering little specific on expectations. A Xinhua News Agency piece on Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei’s press conference was representative of the tone of coverage – emphasizing the relationship has “important opportunities for development.”

You can check out the actual itinerary here, but subtract a day from the beginning. The President will first go to Ford Hood for a memorial service.

Obama’s China itinerary includes Shanghai, China’s biggest city and one of its largest industrial centers, as well as the capital, Beijing. Not on the itinerary is the Southern city of Shenzhen, where his half-brother Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo has been living quietly for a number of years. Previously press shy, his brother just stepped into the limelight, launching a novel just last week.

For a good general overview of the trip, you might want to turn to “Obama confronts an Asia reshaped by China’s rise,” a piece that suggests that even Japan is recalibrating its relationships with the U.S. and China in light of China’s growing economic importance. Total Chinese GDP is expected to exceed that of Japan this year, although given their relative populations, Japan is still a much richer nation. But as its neighbor and major trading partner, China is increasingly important to Japan.

Nevertheless, the U.S. administration appears interested in securing these relationships with all partners in the region. The above article quotes Jeff Bader of the National Security Council at a Brookings Institution event last week stating that the U.S. wants to make it “vividly clear to the peoples of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay in Asia.”

Another related event in Washington, at the Center for American Progress (CAP), was both a preview for the trip and the launch for China’s New Engagement in the International System: In the Ring, but Punching Below its Weight, a report by Nina Hachigian and Christopher Beddor of CAP.

Hachigian and Beddor present sensible recommendations to the Obama administration on approaches how to engage China more deeply in global affairs. They suggest strategies that might lead to more active engagement along the lines that the U.S. might find beneficial without trying to dictate the terms of China’s engagement. While climate change is only one of four areas the authors discuss, it is clearly a major impetus for the book. The launch event also focused significantly on climate change.

My colleague Rob Weiss in DC writes that Bader said China has made progress addressing climate change and contrasted current attention to “indifference” four or five years ago. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg added that China has recognized its own role in working to bring forward an agreement and is not “hiding behind developing countries” as analysts had suggested in previous years. Bader said the focus on climate change was important and did not as some suggested detract from trade and other issues. Steinberg pointed to the synergies between climate and economic goals. He said the President’s visit looks to focus on “bottom up” projects, including electric vehicles, green buildings, collaborative research and carbon capture and storage. The goal is to build specific tools to create a clean economy. He suggested this type of approach also creates jobs in both countries.

Obviously economic relations will be a focus, and many have suggested that “Obama will push economic rebalancing on China trip”. Rebalancing ultimately matters both for the economy (to ensure more balanced growth, steady employment, and secure international markets) and for the climate: a shift from manufacturing to services would also be a shift to less energy intensive industries. These are deep structural issues that the Chinese have been grappling with for years. One can certainly expect some news on economic relations, but of course it is unlikely we’ll see an overhaul of China’s domestic economy as the result of a visit.

What we are likely to see is a strengthened and reaffirmed relationship. Thus far each of the visits by Obama cabinet members have met or exceeded expectations, and some, including Secretary Clinton’s visit in February, far exceeded Chinese expectations and quelled anxiety about her intentions. There isn’t much anxiety about President Obama, just some coolness with the idea that he has international rock star status. But by all accounts he doesn’t convey that expectation in person, and thoughtful conversation is likely to win interlocutors over.

One can also expect there will be some clean energy deliverables. The joint R&D program promised in the July US-China MOU is almost certain, and there might well be other specific program announcements.

Photo by Miguel Roa Guzman, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic license.