In 1792 and again in 1816, King George III of Britain sent ambassadors George Macartney and then William Pitt Amherst to China to negotiate the opening of trade between the leading nation of the West and the leading nation of the East.
In both cases, the British envoys were sent packing after refusing to kowtow as they approached China’s “celestial emperor” because they found it humiliating. The kowtow usually required the person approaching the throne to kneel three times and touch his forehead to the floor three times each to acknowledge the superiority of the Middle Kingdom.
Today, among the thousands of recommendations being thrust upon President-elect Barack Obama comes one urging him to perform a virtual kowtow to the leaders of China by going to Beijing shortly after his inauguration.
The proposal is most ill-advised and shows little understanding of China, past or present. Rather, the new president should invite the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, to Washington with full honors at an appropriate time.
Jeffrey Garten, an undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, has asserted: “Barack Obama’s first overseas trip should be to China, and it should occur within a month after his inauguration on Jan. 20. He should bring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and his ambassador to Beijing.”
“Such a trip would be a showstopper, breaking all precedents,” Mr. Garten, a professor at Yale, wrote in Newsweek last weekend. “The trip would not be designed to negotiate or resolve specific issues. Instead, Obama would be setting the style and the tone of a new U.S. approach to China.”
The Chinese, however, would see that visit as the young, new and relatively inexperienced president coming, like the envoys of old, to pay tribute to China.In Asia, where symbols command more attention than in the West, an early Obama journey would be seen as the “western barbarian” submitting to the power of the Chinese court.
American presidents since Richard Nixon have made the mistake of going to China before inviting a Chinese leader to Washington. In Chinese eyes, and those of many other Asians, that put the president in the position of supplicant. It reinforced the Chinese belief that they are reviving the Middle Kingdom as the center of the world, destined to be superior to all others.
A picture of Chairman Mao Zedong and President Nixon in Mao’s study in 1972 had Mao slouched back and relaxed in an easy chair while Nixon sat up straight on the edge of his chair like a schoolboy before the headmaster. Asians everywhere saw that as evidence that Nixon had come to seek favor from Mao.
President Clinton may have been the worst offender in travel to China. He journeyed through China for nine days in 1998, longer than his trips to other nations, and was seen by the Chinese as the leader of the western barbarians being dazzled by the splendor of China.
Further, he was enticed into publicly taking a position on Taiwan that appeared to favor China, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing island and has threatened to take it with force. The U.S. asserts that any resolution of the Taiwan issue must be acceptable to the people on Taiwan and be peaceable. It is the most troubling issue between China and the U.S.
Against this backdrop, President Obama should take the initiative and invite President Hu to Washington where he would be received with honors. In a not-so-subtle way, that would indicate that President Obama considered President Hu to be his equal, not his superior. The message would be that the new government in Washington has new ways of doing things.
During President Hu’s visit, President Obama could make points about mutual respect, peaceful resolution of issues, and America’s military posture. He could drop the “One China Policy” as being outdated and subject to differing interpretations. He could reemphasize the peaceable settlement of the Taiwan issue.
Beyond that, perhaps President Obama’s first trip to Asia should take place in November 2009, when he would attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore. In an even-handed approach, he would meet most of Asia’s leaders there.
On the way to Singapore, the president might stop in Japan, a key ally. After APEC, the president could travel to Australia to meet leaders of another key ally. The message to America’s allies, friends, and potential adversaries would underscore President Obama’s priorities in Asia.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.