Barack Obama and Chinaâ€™s President Hu Jintao have genuinely important economic matters to talk about this week, even if thereâ€™s little prospect for any agreements that could materially improve our own economy anytime soon. But President Obama can â€“â€“ and certainly will â€“â€“ use these meetings to hammer home his long-term priorities for the U.S.-Sino relationship. And so long as Hu continues to see the United States as the â€œindispensable nationâ€ for Chinaâ€™s economic development â€“â€“ Huâ€™s own words â€“â€“ a U.S. Presidentâ€™s priorities matter. And in acknowledging Chinaâ€™s increasing success in the global economy, the President can also remind Americans why they have to raise their own economic game â€“â€“ and how his domestic policies can help them do just that.
A few of these discussions may produce quick benefits. For example, Obama will press Hu on Chinaâ€™s lax enforcement of the intellectual property (IP) rights of American companies in the Chinese market. A lot of Americans still see such enforcement as a parochial issue for a few big pharmaceutical and software outfits. Itâ€™s true that Chinese producers regularly try to rip off U.S. patented drugs, mainly for third-world markets; and until recently even the Beijing government used a pirated version of Windows. But thereâ€™s much more at stake here for us. The fact is, the only promising, long-term strategy that the global economy offers the United States today depends on our outsized national capacity for developing and adopting economic innovations â€“â€“ from new products and technologies, to new ways of financing, marketing and distributing goods, and new ways of organizing a business and running a workplace. IP rights in the worldâ€™s second largest market, then, affect everything from movies, machine parts and genetically-enhanced foods, to computer slates, Internet business processes, and nanomachines.
China already is legally obliged to protect the IP rights of American companies inside China under the rules of the World Intellectual Property Organization. So, Obama will press Hu to actually meet those obligations; and since China has recently begun to build its own R&D establishment, itâ€™s an area where Chinaâ€™s interests and ours are beginning to align. The truth is, this is ultimately non-negotiable for the United States. But it also should prove to be a small price for China to pay for a solid economic relationship with the country that is not only one of its largest markets, but also its leading source of foreign direct investment into China â€“â€“ including new technologies and business methods that are at issue in IP enforcement.
Thereâ€™s less prospect of real progress on nudging China to revalue its currency, a recent hot-button issue for some prominent members of Congress. A stronger renminbi certainly would appear to be in our interest, since it would cut the price of U.S. exports inside China and raise the price of their exports inside the United States. In practice, it probably would make little difference to our economy. A stronger renminbi mainly would help companies in places which produce the same things as domestic Chinese companies â€“â€“ places like Bangladesh and Thailand, not Michigan or Alabama. Yes, it would shave the price of U.S. products inside China â€“â€“ but it would do the same for the products of our Japanese and European competitors.
Anyway, Hu has no intention of taking major steps in this area. Chinese leaders have always approached the value of their countryâ€™s currency as a matter of national sovereignty â€“â€“ and the truth is, we donâ€™t react very well either when China or the government of any other country criticizes U.S. monetary policies. And even if Hu approached this matter less dogmatically, it wouldnâ€™t change that fact that the cheap renminbi is a critical part of the countryâ€™s basic strategy for strong, export-led growth; or that Hu and his fellow leaders see the success of that strategy as a lynchpin of their own political legitimacy. And while it wonâ€™t be mentioned this week, Chinaâ€™s long-term goal in this area is to claim for the renminbi part of the U.S. dollarâ€™s role as the worldâ€™s reserve currency, which at our expense would help insulate the renimbi itself from future pressures to revalue.
Obama may get a more receptive hearing when he presses Hu to engage with the United States â€“â€“ and the rest of the world â€“â€“ on climate change. Both men know very well that China is now the worldâ€™s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Thatâ€™s mainly because China has the worldâ€™s most ambitious program for building new electricity-generating plants; and since its only significant domestic energy source is coal, thatâ€™s what those plants run on. Hu also knows that the world will address this threat sooner or later â€“â€“ and when they do, China cannot afford to sit on its hands. Obamaâ€™s challenge is the same one he faces with many Americans â€“â€“ come up with a strategy that will raise the price of fossil fuels without imposing serious costs on the economy. Here at home, the answer to that riddle is a carbon-based tax with the revenues recycled for tax cuts in other areas. For China, Obamaâ€™s approach will have to be more subtle â€“â€“ for example, intimating about a future agreement to promote joint ventures by U.S. and Chinese companies to develop and sell new alternative fuels and climate-friendly technologies.
These issues also give Obama the opportunity to drive home his case for new public investments at home â€“â€“ in education and training, for example â€“â€“ to expand Americaâ€™s modest comparative advantage in fielding a workforce that can adapt easily to new technologies and business methods. This weekâ€™s meetings also could provide a platform to highlight his tax incentives for businesses, so they can make the investments required to better compete with Japanese and European companies in the Chinese market. And any meaningful U.S.-Sino discussions on climate change will dovetail nicely with the administrationâ€™s calls to expand R&D in this area, and so establish a more commanding position for the United States â€“â€“ with or without China â€“â€“ in global markets for green fuels and technologies.