The US First Couple have been thousands of kilometers apart in the last few days. While Michelle Obama is on a trip to China where she deals with the much-vaunted ‘soft issues’, Barack Obama is taking up the ‘harder issues’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Hague. While Obama was appreciating art on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Netherlands, Michelle and her daughters were appreciating the history behind China’s fabled terracotta warriors in Xian.
The US first lady, who visited the Great Wall of China on Sunday, has deftly avoided wading into controversial territory by steering clear of political subjects like rights, democracy and free speech. The US president, however, seems to be doing a lot of talking in the Netherlands’ capital. During his meeting with Xi, Obama discussed the Ukrainian crisis that has left the interim administration in Kiev behave like a lame duck government. China abstained from a West-backed UN Security Council resolution condemning Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia.
In his meeting with Obama yesterday, Xi talked of “greater space where China and the United States are cooperating” and agreed with the US president that Beijing and Washington should forge a new “major power relationship.”
The tragedy of such foggy declarations between heads of state is that they remain just declarations. This must be the umpteenth time that Beijing and Washington have declared their intentions of getting closer on certain issues. However, the two have never been able to jettison differences to move ahead on vital issues. China has been steadfast in standing behind Syria’s Bashar Al Assad along with Russia while the US and other powers condemn the brutishness of the Syrian regime. Beijing has been a supporter of North Korea’s shadowy regime which has been accused of severe rights abuses and of stifling dissent.
The hubris of North Korea is often driven by Beijing’s support. This was on full display yesterday when the reclusive nation issued a warning to the United States that it would take nuclear “measures” if the US does not end what the communist state described as provocations. At the meeting, the Chinese president took on Obama over allegations that the National Security Agency had secretly broken into communications of the Chinese mobile giant Huawei. Such prickly issues often come between better relations among the two powers. The Ukrainian crisis offered Beijing an opportunity to take the side of the West, which was led by the United States in criticising Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in a province of Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic. But the abstention by China has kept its policy in a zone of uncertainty— was it with Putin or with Ukraine?
Obama is seeking China’s support over the Ukraine issue. It would be a major victory for Washington if it can make Beijing change its stance on Ukraine. But it is hard to think that it can.