China’s Role as U.S. Lender Alters Dynamics for Obama

By HELENE COOPER, MICHAEL WINES and DAVID E. SANGER
The New York Times
November 14, 2009

When President Obama visits China for the first time on Sunday, he will, in many ways, be assuming the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.

That stark fact — China is the largest foreign lender to the United States — has changed the core of the relationship between the United States and the only country with a reasonable chance of challenging its status as the world’s sole superpower.

The result: unlike his immediate predecessors, who publicly pushed and prodded China to follow the Western model and become more open politically and economically, Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.

In a July meeting, Chinese officials asked their American counterparts detailed questions about the health care legislation making its way through Congress. The president’s budget director, Peter R. Orszag, answered most of their questions. But the Chinese were not particularly interested in the public option or universal care for all Americans.

“They wanted to know, in painstaking detail, how the health care plan would affect the deficit,” one participant in the conversation recalled. Chinese officials expect that they will help finance whatever Congress and the White House settle on, mostly through buying Treasury debt, and like any banker, they wanted evidence that the United States had a plan to pay them back.

It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

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