Hu Seeks Breakthrough in Forthcoming Summit with Bush

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 18

The summit between Presidents Hu Jintao and George W. Bush next month will have a major bearing on not only Sino-US ties, but also the global balance of power in the 21st century. On one level, Hu’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state will be dominated by the familiar “3-T” issues: Taiwan, trade and technology. On a deeper level, however, the world’s only superpower and the fast-developing would-be superpower will engage in a give-and-take that is sure to shape geopolitical developments, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

While Hu, who has visited Moscow three times since becoming Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief in late 2002, is deemed “pro-Russian,” the 62-year-old Chinese supremo is anxious to nudge problematic Sino-US ties toward a benevolent cycle. One sign of the importance that Hu has attached to his U.S. tour is that he has put together a special team of experts to lay the groundwork for what many in Beijing’s diplomatic community call his most important overseas engagement this year. This ad hoc group consists of members from the party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs – China’s highest diplomatic decision-making body headed by Hu himself – as well as Americanolists from departments and think thanks responsible for foreign affairs, trade, energy issues, intelligence and military strategy. Last month, Hu dispatched top diplomat, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, to Washington to finalize details of his itinerary as well as items on the summit agenda. Tang, a former foreign minister, lost no time in securing for Hu a visit to Bush’s Texas ranch, an honor usually reserved for leaders of American allies.

It is vital to go over recent disagreements and incongruities between Beijing and Washington before looking at the possible breakthroughs that could come out of the much-anticipated Hu-Bush summit. Bilateral ties since last year have been hit by a series of hiccups. These have included wrangling over China’s bulging trade surplus and the value of the renminbi; intensifying competition over areas ranging from Central Asia to oil and gas resources; and American resistance to efforts by Chinese multinationals to take control of strategic U.S. assets such as energy giant Unocal. And while Washington has decried the ambitious military buildup by the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing has raised alarm over a U.S.-led “anti-China containment policy,” particularly the stationing of more American aircraft carriers and other hardware in bases stretching from Hawaii to Okinawa. And there is that perennial irritant to China-US relations: Taiwan. The CCP leadership has continued to accuse Washington of “sending the wrong message” to Taipei by, among other things, dispatching more military advisers to the island.

At the same time, the atmospherics, if not also the substance, regarding bilateral ties have improved since the spring. This has come in the wake of marathon high-level exchanges by ministerial-level officials, including two Beijing trips by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice since last March. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, noted for his hard-line views on China, is due to visit the country in the autumn. And this will likely be followed by an American tour by Chinese Defense Minister, the Soviet-trained General Cao Gangchuan, who has played a key role in establishing his country’s intimate military partnership with Russia.

Diplomatic analysts have attributed the limited but still significant progress made at the just-ended six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis to closer Sino-US cooperation on tackling this East Asian flashpoint. Analysts said it was due to Beijing’s redoubled pressure on Pyongyang that the Kim Jong-il regime was forced to make the “strategic decision” of at least seriously discussing a concrete program for phasing out North Korea’s nuclear capacities. And it was owing to Beijing’s assurances about Pyongyang’s new-found sincerity that Washington agreed to make certain conditional offers to “Mr. Kim,” including possible establishment of diplomatic ties, should North Korea agree to dismantle all nuclear stockpiles and facilities.

A more surprising instance of Sino-American “collaboration” consisted of their joint opposition to efforts by the so-called Group of Four Nations – Japan, Germany, India and Brazil – to gain permanent slots on the United Nations Security Council. After meeting the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, early this month, China’s top UN representative, Wang Guangya, noted that “There are many areas of consensus [between the two nations] on the reform of the Security Council.” While Washington officials would not necessarily characterize the two countries’ similar stance on the G4 proposal as in instance of “cooperation,” Wang’s statement illustrated Beijing’s eagerness to explore commonality of interests with Washington on a wide range of global issues.

During his visit to the U.S. late last month, State Councilor Tang dwelled at length on the so-called 3-T issues. Without citing Washington’s efforts to persuade the Taiwan government and legislature to come up with the funds to procure an already-approved package of American armaments, Tang noted that Taiwan was an integral part of China’s “core interests” and that stability in the Taiwan Strait dovetailed with “the common interests of China and America.” And while conceding the enormity of China’s trade surplus with the U.S., the veteran diplomat contended that the only way to redress the balance was for Washington to relax restrictions over the export of American hi-tech products, including those that might have military applications. Tang’s visit coincided with the announcement that Chinese airline companies had bought 50 Boeing B787 aircraft. Flashing the time-honored business card, Tang noted that China would be importing more than $1 trillion worth of goods and services in the coming five years – and he appealed to the U.S. corporate community not to lose this opportunity.

A Beijing source knowledgeable about preparations for Hu’s U.S. trip said the Chinese president hoped to go “one step further” than the 3-Ts during his tête-à-tête with Bush and other senior officials. “Buoyed by the exponential growth of China’s stature, Hu wants to discuss with the Bush team a new global balance of power – with more give and take between the two nations,” the source said. For example, Beijing has offered Washington its services in the premier foreign-policy concern of the Bush administration: fighting global terrorism. Apart from North Korea, which is to some extent a Chinese client state, Beijing has extensive influence over Iran. While military cooperation between China and Iran has decreased, Chinese state-owned oil companies have significantly boosted investments in oil and gas facilities in the “axis-of-evil” country. “September 11 was a turning point in recent Sino-US relations because the Bush White House needed Chinese help or at least acquiescence in America’s campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the source added. “The recent terrorist activities in Britain and Egypt, not to mention posturing by North Korea and Iran, have again played up the fact that the U.S. cannot do without Chinese cooperation in this crucial area.”

In return, Beijing hopes Washington would rethink its “containment” policy toward China. In internal discussions, Hu and his aides have fingered Washington’s closer military cooperation with Japan – and to some extent, even Taiwan – with a view to “encircling” China and preventing its emergence as a global power. The CCP leadership is also nervous about alleged attempts by the U.S. to promote “velvet revolutions” in Central Asian states close to China such as Kyrgyzstan. It is owing to Beijing’s fear of U.S. “peaceful evolution” tactics – a reference to alleged covert attempts by U.S. forces to turn socialist China into a Western-style capitalist democracy – that security and media departments have (since the spring) imposed strict control over units ranging from NGOs to newspapers. In his talks with Bush, Hu is expected to stress China’s peaceful intentions – and that continued attempts by the U.S. and its allies to hem China in could produce the opposite effect.

Hu and his aides are hopeful that once better rapport and understanding have been established between the two leaders, Washington might adopt a more conciliatory attitude on issues ranging from Taiwan to the export of dual-use technology to China. For example, Chinese officials have for the past year or so indicated that Beijing is ready to rein in the Kim regime if Washington would ensure that the administration of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian would at least not clamor for de jure independence. Another area where Beijing wants to work with rather than compete against the U.S. is energy, sufficient supplies of which are crucial to the continuation of the “economic miracle” in eastern China. It is understood that Chinese cadres have conveyed to Washington a proposal that instead of engaging in cut-throat contests, the two countries can join hands in developing energy resources in regions ranging from Central Asia to Africa. Moreover, Beijing has indicated its readiness to import billions of dollars worth of nuclear power plants and technology from the U.S.

The key to the success of Hu’s visit thus hinges on whether Beijing and Washington can attain the level of trust and common purpose that is implicit in the “constructive strategic relationship” that former presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton tried – but failed – to firm up in the late 1990s. In spite of the apparently good vibes and the growing frequency of high-level consultations, bilateral ties remain fragile and mutual suspicions run high. While Beijing is jittery over growing American clout in Central Asia, many in Washington have fingered Chinese influence behind the decision by the Uzbek government to ask for the departure of American troops from that country in six months’ time. And the massive Sino-Russian war games along China’s eastern and northeastern coast this week are bound to aggravate the “China threat” theory owing to widespread perception in Washington that the exercises are a calculated show of force by Beijing’s hard-line elements just before Hu’s American tour.