I spent the last few weeks working on an essay for TIME Magazine on Barack Obama's foreign policy and, in association with that piece, I interviewed the president on Wednesday in the Oval Office. Here's an excerpt of that interview where we talk about U.S. policy toward China and Asia.
Fareed Zakaria: As the Chinese watched your most recent diplomacy in Asia, is it fair for them to have looked at the flurry of diplomatic activity — political, military, economic — and concluded, as many Chinese scholars have, that the United States is building a containment policy against China?
Barack Obama: No, that would not be accurate, and I’ve specifically rejected that formulation.
I think what would be fair to conclude is that, as I said we would do, the United States has pivoted to focus on the fastest-growing region of the world, where we have an enormous stake in peace, security, the free flow of commerce and, frankly, an area of the world that we had neglected over the last decade because of our intense focus on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
So if you look at what we’ve done, we’ve strengthened our alliances with Japan and South Korea — I think they’re in as good of shape as they’ve ever been. We have involved ourselves in the regional architecture of — including organizations like ASEAN and APEC. We’ve sent a clear signal that we are a Pacific power and we will continue to be a Pacific power, but we have done this all in the context of a belief that a peacefully rising China is good for everybody.
One of the things we’ve accomplished over the last three years is to establish a strong dialogue and working relationship with China across a whole range of issues. And where we have serious differences, we’ve been able to express those differences without it spiraling into a bad place.
I think the Chinese government respects us, respects what we’re trying to do, recognizes that we’re going to be players in the Asia Pacific region for the long term, but I think also recognize that we have in no way inhibited them from continuing their extraordinary growth. The only thing we’ve insisted on, as a principle in that region is, everybody’s got to play by the same set of rules, everybody’s got to abide by a set of international norms. And that’s not unique to China. That’s true for all of us.
Fareed Zakaria: But do you think they’re not?
Barack Obama: Well, I think that when we’ve had some friction in the relationship, it’s because China, I think, still sees itself as a developing or even poor country that should be able to pursue mercantilist policies that are for their benefit and where the rules applying to them shouldn’t be the same rules that apply to the United States or Europe or other major powers.
And what we’ve tried to say to them very clearly is, 'Look, you guys have grown up. You’re already the most populous country on earth, depending on how you measure it, the largest or next-largest economy in the world and will soon be the largest economy, almost inevitably. You are rapidly consuming more resources than anybody else. And in that context, whether it’s maritime issues or trade issues, you can’t do whatever you think is best for you. You’ve got to play by the same rules as everybody else.'
I think that message is one that resonates with other Asia Pacific countries, all of whom want a good relationship with China, all of whom are desperately seeking access to China’s markets and have forged enormous commercial ties, but who also recognize that unless there are some international norms there, they’re going to get pushed around and taken advantage of.
Fareed Zakaria: You think it’s inevitable that China will be the largest economy in the world? It’s now the second largest, even on PPP.
Barack Obama: Well, they are — assuming that they maintain stability and current growth patterns, then, yes, it’s inevitable. Even if they slow down somewhat, they’re so large that they’d probably end up being, just in terms of the overall size of the economy, the largest.
But it’s doubtful that any time in the near future they achieve the kind of per capita income that the United States or some of the other highly developed countries have achieved. They’ve just got a lot of people, and they’re moving hundreds of millions of people out of poverty at the same time.