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There was something both sad and strange about President Obama’s weak presence in China last week.
Sad because he arrived with no seeming goals and left empty handed just after visiting the ancient Great Wall, which he said gave him a perspective on time.
Strange because he allowed the Chinese rulers to quarantine his stops from the Chinese people?whether in person or on television. His main public meeting was with young Communist League students who came with scripted questions.
All the outward signs were that Mr. Obama had no cards to play. The U.S. is by far the world’s biggest debtor. It was hard to challenge his Chinese hosts who made crisp mention of our government’s deep deficits and deficit spending. They did not have to describe our weakened economy, its declining dollar and the huge indebtedness that the U.S. has with its Chinese creditors. Everybody knows how rickety America?s global financial situation is.
Of course we do not know what went on in the private discussions between Mr. Obama and his Chinese counterparts. Suffice it to say that the President could not have gotten very far on the undervaluation of the Yuan, the gross inequities in the trading rules and practices between China and its biggest customer on the other side of the Pacific.
Had Mr. Obama raised the major trade, investment, military and security issues of conflict with China depicted in the just-released 2009 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the chilly reception that China’s leaders accorded him in public would have turned decidedly frosty. (For the full report, visit www.uscc.gov.)
David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, praised the U.S.-China joint statement as being “filled with multiple tangible areas of cooperation.” The statement, however, is mere words without any binding details.
On the minus side, Mr. Shambaugh was unsparing. He said:
The failures lay in how the president spent his time in China. Not interacting with Chinese people, not giving an uncensored nationally televised speech, not visiting any civic organizations or businesses, not visiting a wind farm or clean-energy firm, not meeting human rights lawyers or activists, and not meeting with the American business or scholarly community must all be counted as failures. He did not send positive signals in these areas?but the Chinese government did not permit it and the American side did not insist on it.
This first trip to China by Mr. Obama was a lost opportunity in three ways that cannot be excused, no matter the absence of proactive status and power.
First, the U.S. is China’s biggest consumer and it has not been treated well. Contaminated fish, dangerous ingredients in medicines, defective tires and lead-contaminated products are some of the continuing problems that have cost American lives and health.
Mr. Obama should have concluded a consumer protection treaty with China requiring access to their laboratories, factories and exporters for product inspection and certification. Such a treaty should include safeguards against importation of counterfeit goods and subject Chinese companies who want to do business in our country to our laws of tort and contract in our courts.
Second, there should be a bilateral agreement focused on the enormous rush of air pollution coming from China over the Pacific carried by the prevailing winds. China is opening two large electricity-generating coal plants every week and Korea, Japan, and North America are suffering the effects, along with the effects of emissions from huge belching factories. This agreement would be helpful, now that the Copenhagen Conference has been consigned to rhetoric and exhortation, in paving the way for greater cooperation on acid rain, acidification of the ocean and, of course, climate change.
China is worried about our deficits. We should be worrying about their emissions.
Third, a long-overdue pact regarding infectious diseases is needed. Many Americans over the decades have lost their lives from influenza sourced out of China. The virus is passed from pigs to farmers, who live in very close proximity, to the rest of the world.
China learned from the SARS epidemic of 2003 how economically damaging secrecy can be. But it still needs to be more cooperative with international early alert systems. The government needs to allow more American infectious disease specialists to work with their Chinese counterparts full time in China.
A major expansion of cooperative facilities, detection and data analysis, tests and other anti-epidemic initiatives, that together can save millions of lives in the future, both in China and the U.S., is an urgent priority.
Maybe Mr. Obama spoke privately about these matters. But that is a sign of weakness. He owed the American people some public energy and leadership in Beijing to protect them ? as consumers ?from these fallouts of corporate globalization, since he clearly did not move to protect them as workers.
RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.