The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, received a chilly welcome ahead of his first US state visit next week as Barack Obama responded to growing China-bashing among presidential candidates by listing his own demands on Beijing.
Though insisting the hostility of Republican candidates such as Donald Trump was unhelpful, the president warned China to curb its cyber-attacks on US companies or face a race to “weaponise the internet” in retaliation.
“This is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved, and … we are prepared to take some countervailing actions in order to get their attention,” warned Obama during remarks to the Business Roundtable.
“Frankly, although the Chinese and Russians are close, we’re still the best at this,” he added. “And if we wanted to go on offense, a whole bunch of countries would have some significant problems. And we don’t want to see the internet weaponised in that way.”
The remarks are Obama’s bluntest yet on the threat from commercialcyber-attacks, which he claimed are distinct from state espionage of the sort the US has been shown to engage in through leaks from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The White House has repeatedly denied the NSA engages in trade espionage, despite reports, based upon documents leaked by Snowden, that the agency spied on foreign companies such as Brazil’s biggest oil company, Petrobras.
“We will do everything we can to stop you from getting state secrets or transcripts of a meeting that I’ve had, but we understand you’re going to be trying to do that,” said the president. “That is fundamentally different from your government or its proxies engaging directly in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets, stealing proprietary information from companies. That we consider an act of aggression that has to stop.”
But the president also lashed out at Chinese economic, military and environmental policy, claiming “you can’t breathe in Beijing” and “you can’t go around pushing your little neighbours around just because you’re bigger”.
“As they have matured, what we’ve said to them is, with power comes responsibility, so now you’ve got to step up,” said Obama. “You can’t act as if you are a third-world country and pursue protectionist policies, or engage in dumping, or not protect intellectual property at a time when we’re now – when you’re now the second and, eventually, probably the first-largest economy in the world.”
The blunt tone of the president’s remarks contrasts starkly with the usually diplomatic White House preamble to state visits but may reflect growing concern in the administration that anti-free-trade speeches by Trump and, to an extent, Democratic rival Bernie Sanders are shaping a negative public perception of US economic performance relative to competitors like China.
“America is winning right now. America is great right now,” said Obama in a direct retort to Trump’s aim to “make America great again”.
“Now, you wouldn’t know any of this if you were listening to the folks who are seeking this office that I occupy,” he added. “In the echo chamber that is presidential politics, everything is dark and everything is terrible.
“I’m here to say that there’s nothing particularly patriotic or American about talking down America, especially when we stand as one of the few sources of economic strength in the world.”
Obama insisted it was not constructive to suggest the US was losing its battle against Asian competitors, but used some choice language of his own and called on China “to start abiding by a basic code of conduct” over military and economic behaviour.
“I think in some areas, the Chinese understand this; I think in other areas, they don’t. I think in other areas, they still see themselves as the poor country that shouldn’t have any obligations internationally,” he said.
“In some cases, they still feel that when we call them on issues like their behaviour in the South China Sea, or on intellectual property theft, that we are trying to contain them as opposed to us just wanting them to abide by the same rules that helped create an environment in which they can rise.”
Behind the comments was also a veiled threat that the US remained the superior world power for now and its president could get a lot more combative in future.
“The good news is that our fates are sufficiently intertwined… and in many ways, they still need us a lot more than we need them,” concluded Obama. “I think that there are going to be continuing areas in which they move, as long as we don’t resort to the kind of loose talk and name-calling that I notice some of our presidential candidates engage in … it tends not to be constructive.”
This article was written by Dan Roberts in Washington, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th September 2015 22.17 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010