President Barack Obama annoyed the Chinese government, embarrassed the Japanese government and called Americans “lazy” at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hawaii, held over the weekend.
The diplomatic strike-out was accomplished by Obama during a trip that his aides hoped would portray him a global leader worthy of re-election in 2012.
The trip’s absence of significant trade, investment or security deals, and Obama’s frequent claims that President George W. Bush reduced the nation’s standing in the world, created an opportunity for his domestic rivals to deride his trans-Pacific diplomacy.
International media broadcast a U.S. government report on Saturday that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told Obama that he is willing to “put all goods, as well as services, on the negotiating table for trade liberalization,” or free trade deals.
Japan’s foreign ministry quickly denied the claim on Sunday. “Prime Minister Noda never said this,” the ministry wrote in a statement.
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest affirmed the U.S. report during a press conference. “The readout that we put out was based on the private consultations that President Obama and Prime Minister Noda had… [and] also on the public declarations from Prime Minister Noda and other members of his administration,” Earnest said.
Free trade is a controversial issue in Japan, partly because Japan’s small farms, family shops and homogeneous culture would likely be significantly impacted if U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart gain greater access to Japan’s consumers.
Next, the Chinese government reacted sourly to Obama’s Nov. 13 statement that China has “grown up,” and should end its long-standing “mercantilist” practice of artificially lowering the value of its currency to boost domestic growth by spurring exports and constricting imports.
“Now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way,” Obama said during a press conference.
The Chinese government, Obama said, should “understand that their role is different now than it might have been 20 years ago or 30 years ago, where if they were breaking some rules, it didn’t really matter, it did not have a significant impact… [such as] huge trade imbalances that had consequences for the world financial system.”
Obama’s hard line is likely popular in the United States, because China’s economic growth has been accompanied by a stalled U.S. economy and a shrinking U.S. manufacturing sector.
But China’s government did not cede any ground.
“If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them,” said Pang Sen, a foreign ministry official. “If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that,” he added.
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest affirmed the president’s language, saying “I think the president expressed himself pretty clearly yesterday at the news conference and I don’t think that I have anything to expand upon that.”
On Saturday, Obama casually blamed Americans — but not the government policies that he favors — for a rapid 2009 decline of foreign investment in the United States.
“We’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades,” he said during a scripted conversation Saturday in Hawaii with Boeing’s CEO at a summit for Pacific region business leaders.
Obama said the cure is an increased recruitment effort by the federal government — not, as conservatives urge, lower taxes and reduced regulation.
Foreign investors need “to navigate state and local governments that may have their own sets of interests… [and] being able to create, if not a one-stop shop, then at least no more than a couple of stops for people to be able to come into the United States and make investments, that’s something that we want to encourage,” he said.
Obama’s criticism was scorned by GOP politicians and conservative commentators. “No one is asking him to go out there … to be a jingoistic cheerleader,” Charles Krauthammer said on Fox news. “But when you call your own country ‘lazy’ when you are abroad and you call it unambitious and soft when you’re home, I think what you are showing is not tough love, but ill-concealed contempt.”
Obama also took time in the Saturday press event to disparage former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the Pacific.
“Obviously, having gone through a couple of tough years, having been engaged in a decade of war, we recognize all the challenges that are out there for the United States. … One of the things that I’m very encouraged about is the eagerness of countries to see the U.S. re-engaged” in the Pacific, he said.
“The news I have to deliver for the American people is American leadership is still welcome.”