Within just a few weeks, President Obama sought to bolster two of the United States’ most important relationships. First, he first met with the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in Sunnylands, California and then gave a wide-ranging speech in Berlin, Germany. The two visits come at a time when important trade arrangements are just beginning to take shape, namely the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But the visits also exposed the differences in the U.S. relationship with China and Europe and the future challenges that will need to be overcome.
Obama’s successful return to Berlin highlighted many of the strengths of America’s ties with Europe and marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech reaffirming Western solidarity against the Soviet Union. Obama reminded his audience of Kennedy’s message to look beyond their immediate concerns and work for “peace with justice” beyond Europe’s borders: “complacency is not the character of great nations… the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.” While this spirit could certainly be found in a country like China, it is not clearly evident in Europe.
President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stroll through Sunnylands was also a historic occasion; it marked the first time in forty years that the leaders of the two countries sat down for a ‘blue sky’ discussion. But the meeting was heavy on photo-ops and light on the issues. One might also wonder about the choice of setting, secreted away as the two leaders were in an exclusive resort roughly half-way between Beijing and Washington. The talks assured observers there are no immediate fissures in the relationship, but the underlying lack of trust between the two countries on a range of issues will be harder to overcome.
The clearest contrast between Berlin and Sunnylands was that, in the former, Obama spoke directly to Europeans. In the latter, he could not speak directly to Chinese. Indeed, his last public appearance in China in 2009 was as tightly controlled as a presidential visit could possibly be; when he hurriedly answered questions vetted by the authorities before being rushed off the stage. More recently, the President has been lambasted in the officially-sanctioned media for the PRISM surveillance program. It is telling that no U.S. president would ever be allowed to speak in Tiananmen Square, while many presidents have spoken at the Brandenburg Gate. Sunnylands only exposed this gap in trust between the two countries.
Of course, China has its own reasons for keeping the United States at arm’s length. It simultaneously fears the liberalizing message of Obama’s speeches and craves the status of a “new great power relationship” with the United States; a status it believes could give it greater freedom of maneuver. China’s economic weight and growing military power does justify greater recognition, but not at the expense of its neighbors interests and the interests of the international community. A closer relationship with the United States is not a reward for China’s cash and steel.
U.S-European relations are the inverse: close cultural and economic ties should not lead to reliance on Washington’s leadership. Europe has had difficulty finding its own way out of recession. The accompanying skepticism about the European Union’s institutions has been worrying. But a U.S president cannot forge the path ahead for Europe; it must come from the continent’s own leaders.
The occasion of Obama’s speech in Berlin was only one step towards a broader vision. Beijing’s caution is a reflection of its wary competition with Washington. Europe’s struggles can be helped by a transatlantic friend, but only mastered from within. The Obama administration would be wise to do more to clarify these relationships and stress that the “rebalance” is not about containing one or turning away from the other – it is about moving forward with each. As the United States rebuilds at home and looks abroad for partners, it needs both China and Europe to address the global challenges that lay ahead.