Willy Lam: Equals at Last, for Better or for Worse (China and the US)

[Willy Lam is a professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.]

While no breakthroughs came out of the Barack Obama-Hu Jintao summit meeting, the U.S. president’s maiden trip to China will go down in history as a pivotal event in the relations between the two most powerful countries of the 21st century.

For the first time, the leaders of the United States and China talked as equals. And the rough parity between an apparently declining superpower and a fast-rising quasi-superpower has major global implications for issues including regional security, nuclear proliferation, trade, climate change and human rights.

The problem is that while its new-found power has emboldened Beijing to assume a much higher profile in world affairs, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has a radically different interpretation from the United States of what China’s international role or responsibility should be...

... These positive aspects aside, the summit has reinforced the fact that China will use its clout to advance its agenda — not America’s. It is clearer than ever that for Beijing, strategic and business ties with its major allies come first.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, this means that when it comes to cooperating to halt nuclear proliferation, the U.S. and its allies should not assume that Beijing will ever play hardball with either Pyongyang or Tehran.

A key reason why Mr. Obama has adopted a conciliatory stance toward Beijing — for example, snubbing the Dalai Lama last month — is that Washington hopes China will use its vast influence with North Korea and Iran to prod the two pariah states toward denuclearization...

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