Obama's Beijing balancing act points to the new challenge for the west
  • Wed, 11/18/2009 - 11:00


Timothy Garton Ash
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 November 2009 20.30 GMT

To mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Barack Obama goes to Beijing. Europe is so then, China so now. And as global power shifts east, even the most powerful and eloquent leader of our time wrestles with the dilemmas of engagement.

Before going to China, Obama made two major concessions: not meeting the Dalai Lama (unlike his predecessors in the White House), and describing China as a "strategic partner", a label much desired by the leadership in Beijing. In the short term he seems to have got very little in return, whether on Iran, Afghanistan or the exchange rate of the renminbi. The contrast between Bill Clinton's freewheeling, open, mutually critical press conference with Jiang Zemin in 1998, and the frigid presentation of contrasting statements by Obama and Hu Jintao – with no journalists' questions allowed – is a measure of the distance travelled by China over America's wasted decade. Poised to become the world's second biggest economy in 2010, and holding some $1 trillion of US debt, China increasingly feels able to set its own terms.

Yes, Obama did mention human rights and Tibet. Yes, in that "town hall" meeting with students in Shanghai he did manage to elicit – from his own ambassador – a Chinese question, posted on the US embassy website, about the great firewall of China. His reply was curiously contorted. He's always been a strong supporter of open internet use, he said, and "I'm a big supporter of non-censorship". (An odd phrase. Why not say "free speech"?) "This is part of the tradition of the United States," he went on, but immediately added: "I recognise that different countries have different traditions." Then he sang the praises of Google, and repeated his opposition to restricting internet use and "other information technologies like Twitter". You felt him swaying on a tightrope, adjusting his balance with a long pole.

How this relationship plays out over the next 20 years will, of course, depend mainly on the realities of economic, military and political power. China is on the up, but its own system has many internal weaknesses. Diplomatically, the United States will have significant possibilities of balancing Chinese power by relationships with Europe (if we Europeans get our act together – starting today, with the appointment of credible people to the EU's two new top jobs), India, Japan and other regional powers. A co-operative "strategic partnership" of all these powers is indeed the goal towards which we should work.

Yet beyond the hard power relations, there is an almost philosophical question about how we in the west engage with China. There are, it seems to me, two basic approaches we could adopt. As he swayed on his tightrope, the end of Obama's balancing pole pointed sometimes to one, sometimes to the other. The first approach, which China's rulers like, is to say this: you have your traditions, your civilisation, your culture, your values; and we have ours. In a world of very diverse sovereign great powers, the only basis for international order is mutual respect. Inside our respective frontiers we do it our way, you do it yours. Only thus can we avoid Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations".

I think China's current rulers would be happy to settle for that. Unlike in the Maoist period, and unlike some in the United States and Europe today, they are not missionary universalists. They do not claim that their Chinese model, evolved by trial and error, is necessarily good for anyone else. That may yet come – partly because people in developing countries start asking for it – but for now the China model is made only for China. By contrast, both the United States and the European Union tend to believe that other parts of the world both could and should become more like them.

China's commitment to non-interference in other states' affairs is not entirely consistent. Like the United States, China has a twin-track view of sovereignty: our own sovereignty is absolute, other people's is relative. Thus, for example, China has gone to extraordinary lengths to dissuade western leaders, including Obama, from meeting the Dalai Lama in their own capitals, whereas a consistent doctrine of mutually respected sovereignty would surely say: "We don't tell you who you meet in your country, and you don't tell us who we meet in ours." However, with the exception of what it regards as matters of vital national interest, China is not (yet) trying to tell other people how to run their own countries.

The other approach, which I support, is to start the search for a genuinely universal universalism, in a dialogue with China and other non-western emerging powers. This could not be a purely western-defined universalism, with the implication that all the essential universal truths were discovered in the west some time between, say, 1650 and 1800, and all other countries simply have to follow suit. Rather, it would be a universalism that says something like this: we hold these truths to be self-evident, but maybe you'd like to suggest some other ones. We say life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; perhaps you'd like to make the case for harmony, security or trans-generational community. Then let us compare the aspirations, and the social realities, in the cool light of reason.

This is not a "dialogue among civilisations", a term that seems to imply that my values are determined by the "civilisation" of my birth or religion. It is certainly not a trade-off between "western values" and "Asian values". It is an invitation to a genuine conversation about what all human beings have in common, and how they should best organise and live their lives.

The answers given in the west during and since what we call the Enlightenment seem to me the best anyone has found so far. Yet even a brief immersion in the Confucian and Buddhist traditions suggests that there are things we could learn from them – and that there is a good deal of common ground. So my idea of mutual respect is not: "You have your culturally determined values, we have ours, and ne'er the twain shall meet." It is: "I'm going to make the strongest possible reasoned case for the universal values of the Enlightenment being the best for you as well as for us, but I'm also all ears for your response."

My limited experience of young Chinese, including members of the Communist party, suggests that they are very open to such a conversation. But here's the catch. In order to have it, they must be exposed to our ideas, and to the evidence that supports those ideas, and we must be exposed to theirs. One of the good things to come out of Obama's visit was an agreement to expand people-to-people contacts, including students travelling in both directions; but they will still remain a small minority. The rest of the exposure will have to happen through various media, and above all through the internet. So the free flow of information cannot be dismissed as simply a western value, contested in the east. It is a precondition for having this conversation at all.

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