Obama to China: 'Act like a grown-up'

US President Barack Obama talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Apec summit on 12 November 2011 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Obama said China needed to behave in a more responsible manner

China needs to behave like a "grown-up" when it comes to its interaction with the rest of the world.

That's not my judgement - it's what America's president has just said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Hawaii.

Ouch! It's strong stuff, and hardly the most diplomatic way for the leader of the world's biggest economy to talk about the world's second-biggest economy.

To be fair Barack Obama was a little more circumspect about the way he put it, but it's still a pretty extraordinary statement to make.

He was careful to begin by saying he welcomed China's "peaceful rise", and believed there could be "friendly and constructive competition" between the two.

But China's leaders, he said, need "to understand that their role is different now than it might have been 20 years ago or 30 years ago when, if they were breaking some rules, it didn't really matter, it didn't have a significant impact".

"Now they have grown up. They are going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way."

There is a widespread view in America that China's rise is happening because it is willing to flout the rules that others follow, profiting at their expense.

US complaints focus on the way China fixes its exchange rate, limits foreign firms' access to its markets and, they say, does little to prevent widespread theft of intellectual property.

"Enough is enough," Mr Obama said at his Apec press conference. White House officials were briefing that he had been "blunt" with China's president when they met in private.

'Gaming the system'

There are several ways to see this outburst. First is that may be a genuine expression of American frustration towards China.

Since 2005 US officials have been trying to encourage China to become what they call a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. The aim is to try to convince China that as it rises and becomes more powerful, it has most to gain from playing by the rules, not bending them.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Was Mr Obama's message aimed at an international or domestic audience?

So is the US losing patience with this approach? China, President Obama said at Apec, is guilty of "gaming the system" to the disadvantage of its trading partners. "We are going to continue to be firm that China operates by the same rules as everyone else, we don't want them taking advantage of the United States."

That brings us to the second reading of Mr Obama's outburst. Is he really posturing, talking tough to China in order to win over voters back home? Certainly many in China are viewing the comments as a sign that in hard economic times it's good electoral politics to blame China for America's troubles.

China's President Hu Jintao apparently told Mr Obama that "the Chinese exchange rate is not to blame for structural problems in the US, such as the trade deficit and a high unemployment rate".

There are many who think that strengthening the value of China's currency won't mean American jobs lost to China in the past decade return to US shores - the jobs will simply go to the next low-cost country like Vietnam or India.

Responding to Mr Obama, Pang Sen, an official with China's foreign ministry, said: "If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that."

Development first?

But I think the interesting question to ask is whether Mr Obama is right. Is China already a grown-up power? If so, how should it behave?

China has unquestionably grown in economic might. But there are differing opinions here about how much that means China should take on a more responsible role as a great power globally.

The next test of this may well come when China has to decide how to act in the face of growing Western concern about Iran's nuclear programme and Syria's crackdown on internal dissent. Should China co-operate with the West in any calls for new sanctions, should it assert its own position or stand back and try not to get entangled?

Some in China feel their country should still be viewed as a low-income nation, not even "moderately prosperous" yet, and left to focus on its own development. But there are an increasing number who feel the time is right to assert Chinese power and Chinese interests more forcefully, to demand the respect and status they feel China deserves.

Some think China should be cautious and not disrupt the current system as China's growing prosperity has been built on trade and interaction with America and the outside world. Others want China to reshape the way the world works.

So perhaps another way to think of it is that China itself may not have resolved the question of how grown up it is and what that means.

Mr Obama believes China has grown up and should act accordingly, but what do you think?