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Obama has full agenda for China trip

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Kai Ryssdal: The president leaves for an eight-day swing through Asia Thursday night. He’ll stop in Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore along the way. He’ll also spend three days in China. There’s obviously a limit to how much you can get done in 72 hours of state dinners and bilateral meetings. To get some idea of what might be at the top of the president’s list, I spoke earlier today to China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal at the Brookings Institution.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think he wants to accomplish two things. One is to introduce himself, his vision of the United States, and his vision of U.S. – China relations to the people of China broadly. He’s a new commodity. He wants to get the people of China to become a little comfortable with him. Secondly, he has a substantive agenda, which is really very significant. The key thing about the substantive agenda is it focuses primarily on global issues, and it’s only this year that global issues have really come to the center of U.S. – China bilateral relations. The three big issues are the economic and financial crisis, clean energy and climate change, and the issue of nuclear proliferation.

Ryssdal: Do you think there’s going to be agreement on that climate change issue? I mean last I checked it was very much the Chinese saying, we’re not going to curve our emissions until you do something, and the Americans saying, oh, c’mon, you got to help us out.

LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think it’s important to differentiate clean energy from climate change here. The big bilateral issue right now is clean energy, and the advantage of focusing on clean energy is threefold. One, clean energy is more than 80 percent of how each of us needs to address climate change, so it’s substantively important. Secondly, the politics of clean energy are much simpler than the politics of climate change. Because you don’t have to get into total emissions and historic responsibilities and all that kind of thing. You can just look at projects that are win, win projects and get going on them. If we can get together on the issue of clean energy, announce some serious cooperative projects, it’s going to help a lot as we go into the broader global climate change negotiations. Other countries regard us as the biggest problem on climate change, so if we can demonstrate we’re willing to work together, and work together focused on clean energy, I think that’s going to have some positive spin-off effects.

Ryssdal: Can we demonstrate that, do you think?

LIEBERTHAL: I think the current plan, we’ll have to see what actually happens, but the current plan is to issue a joint statement at the end of the president’s visit to Beijing, and I expect that statement to have some specifics on various initiatives that we’ll do together in the clean energy space. So I think there are some real deliverables that we will see within a few days.

Ryssdal: Number three on that list of global issues was the global economy. What can we expect there out of this meeting?

LIEBERTHAL: Each of us are so interdependent with the other that, for example, we count on China continuing to buy our sovereign debt. They count on us to pursue policies that don’t produce a rapid decline in the value of the dollar because they’ve invested so much of their wealth in dollars. So I think what we’ll see here is an on-going, deep discussion of the key issues that concern both of us. Among those will certainly be the issue of protectionism. Both leaderships have a lot of internal pressure to take protectionist measures, I think both recognize that that’s not a good way to go. That will be one of the issues that will be scrubbed pretty thoroughly.

Ryssdal: What about the Chinese currency, the yuan, much of the conversation is centered on the relative value of that and the dollar.

LIEBERTHAL: The Chinese effectively peg their currency to the U.S. dollar, and we would like to see them increase the value of their currency vis-a-vis the dollar. They’re very nervous about doing that, and they’re nervous in part because they have a lot of job pressure at home and increasing value of the currency will likely make it more difficult for them to export. And therefore put more downward pressure on export-orientated jobs, so I think that’s going to be a tough one. Over time, I would expect the Chinese to revalue the renminbi, their currency upward, but I think in the coming few months, I will be pleasantly surprised if that occurs.

Ryssdal: Kenneth Lieberthal. He’s a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for your time.

LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure, good to talk to you.

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