Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama Visits Beijing: Yuan, Human Rights, Climate on Docket

Obama’s upcoming visit to China next week is generating global interest amid the release of an inflammatory Human Rights Watch report, repeated calls for climate change discourse and China’s giant holdings of U.S. foreign reserves.

The visit, Obama’s first to China, is already marked by a decidedly different tone than that of administrations past. U.S. concerns for human rights interests remain on the foreground, especially with regard to supporters of an independent Tibet. And an international cry has gone up over “An Alleyway in Hell,” the 53-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch describing China’s use of unlawful jails and detention centers to quell political dissent – especially on the lead-up to visits by foreign leaders.

However, this time around the U.S. will be approaching China on an altogether more deferential note, owing entirely to two huge factors: the immense power now abiding within an artificially undervalued yuan, and the looming nuclearization of North Korea.

China’s status as the single largest holder of U.S. foreign debt places it in predictable position at the center of the post-recession economy. Any significant divestitures would ratchet up U.S. interest rates, reducing consumption at home and severely impacting foreign exporters. Complications arise as China’s expanding middle class increasingly seek their own avenues for consumption.

China is also a major player in the Obama administration’s strategy to persuade Pyongyang to discontinue pursuit of nuclear arms, the acquisition of which would certainly lend considerable instability to an already rocky relationship with North Korea. For more on the latter, watch video of Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher's recent Commonwealth Club speech and discussion.

With the approach of December’s Copenhagen climate conference, climate change won’t exactly be written off the agenda – especially given China and America’s shared title as the world’s largest CO2 producers. Whether China will be open to any pot-vs-kettle name calling or shrugs off any urging from the Obama administration remains of keen interest to many, given China’s burgeoning market for green technology.

--By Andrew Harrison


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