The Awkward Dance of Foreign Relations

By Rose Scobie
Published: 2010-11-12

Ever since Emperor Qianlong wrote to the King of England in 1793, “I have no use for your country’s goods….there is no need to bring in the wares of foreign barbarians to exchange for our own products,” state visits to China have been awkward.

In the modern era where a country can no longer make the populace of its trading partner addicted to Opium in order to increase its exports, world leaders have no choice but to bite their tongues if they want access to the China market. Thus with the increasing uncertainty over who holds the reins of the global economy, state visits have become clumsy affairs where two parties who want something from each other get together, eat some food, attempt a foreign phrase, make concessions, and then move on. The western media no longer knows quite what to make of these visits.

In the days leading up to Obama’s visit to China last year the press was abuzz with questions: Would he talk about human rights? Would he pressure China on increasing the RMB exchange rate? Would he mention Tibet? After his visit the media had their answers, but were not pleased with them and criticized Obama for his lack of breakthroughs.

In 2008 French President Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of Beijing’s Olympic Games due to the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. This threat resulted in a widespread boycott of French goods and visa problems for French nationals in China. Sarkozy has since learned his lesson and on November 4 after a three-day state visit from Hu Jintao France announced 22.8 billion dollars worth of deals with China, a feat accomplished by not uttering a word on Tibet or other human rights issues.

When David Cameron came to China this past week, it was clear what he was after – to emulate France’s accomplishment and secure more trade with China – but the media continued to wonder if he would sufficiently challenge China on human rights. It seems that people have yet to realize that if a country really wants China to buy their products, travel to their country, and or continue to purchase their debt, then “challenging” China is no longer an option.

Recently Obama has been country hopping in Asia, and some say, thumbing his nose at China with comments such as, “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty” during his November 9 speech in Indonesia.  If the doomsayers are right and there is a spat between America, China, Germany and all the rest at the G20 negotiations underway in Seoul, then all the tongue biting will have been for naught as the world is about to enter a period of competitive devaluation and protectionism and become a place where it is ok to ask about artists under house arrest, jailed Nobel Prize winners, mentally ill prisoners who are executed, and an exiled Tibetan leader. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound too terrible.