President Hu Jintao’s U.S. trip last week (April 18 – 21) marked subtle but important changes in both the substance and style of China’s American diplomacy. This is despite the fact that given the lack of accomplishments at the much-touted Hu-Bush “summit,” the visit would probably be remembered mainly for the intrepid Falun Gong protestor at the White House South Lawn as well as President Bush’s refusal to give his guest a state dinner.
From the days of Chairman Mao Zedong, Beijing’s foreign policy toward the U.S. has always been the preserve of the country’s top party cadre. Since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, China’s American diplomacy has been guided by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s realistic, eight-character instruction: “Avoid confrontation and seek cooperation.” This dictum was faithfully followed during the 13-year tenure of ex-president Jiang Zemin, who was deemed “pro-U.S.” by quite a few Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. Yet since President Hu took over Jiang’s last remaining post of Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission in September 2004, the new supremo—who few would call “pro-U.S.”—has fundamentally revised Deng’s mantra partly to reflect the nation’s growing heft in economics, military strength and global standing. While on the surface, the Hu-led diplomatic team would seem to be working hard to accommodate a good number of U.S. demands, Beijing has let it be known in no uncertain terms that it is not afraid of taking on the lone superpower. In other words, the new guiding principle in China-U.S. diplomacy has become: “Cooperate – if it suits our purposes – but don’t shy away from confrontation if toughness is required.”
Given the growing inter-dependency between the U.S. and China, there is little doubt that Beijing is eager to secure whatever benefits that would accrue from cementing a “constructive, cooperative partnership” with Washington. Indeed, Hu and his colleagues in the CCP’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs had thoroughly done their homework prior to the president and commander-in-chief’s arrival in Seattle. Earlier this month, Vice-Premier Wu Yi bought $16.2 billion’s worth of American products. The State Council, or cabinet, announced tough new guidelines against piracy of intellectual property rights, including the fact that governments of all levels must buy properly licensed software. At least outwardly, Chinese diplomats refused to make much of the fact that the Bush White House had refused to dignify the Hu trip by calling it a “state visit.”
Yet when it came to the supposed substance of the Hu tour—the one-hour tete-a-tete in the White House—the Chinese leader gave nothing away. Beijing stood its ground on a gradualist policy on appreciating the Chinese currency. The Chinese team laid the blame for the $200 billion U.S. trade deficit on the Bush administration’s refusal to sell the PRC high technology, including dual-use hardware. Most significantly, Hu did not even offer anything rhetorically notable regarding what Beijing would do to pressure its quasi-allies, North Korea and Iran, into dismantling their nuclear programs.
In fact, the new Hu doctrine on American diplomacy—do not shy away from confrontation—has manifested itself most palpably in China’s continued support for the two rogue regimes. Earlier this month, the Chinese leader sent his defense minister and trusted military aide, General Cao Gangchuan, to both Pyongyang and Seoul with a view of demonstrating Beijing’s growing clout with not only the DPRK but also South Korea. It is no secret that through last year, China’s economic and energy aid to the Kim Jong-il regime increased substantially. General Cao pledged an “expansion of military cooperation” while meeting his hosts in Pyongyang. While in Seoul, one of General Cao’s purposes was clearly trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, especially ensuring that U.S. troops stationed in the ROK would not be deployed against China should the two powers go to war over Taiwan.
Also prior to Hu’s visit, Beijing sent Assistant Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai as a special envoy to Tehran to discuss the Iranian nuclear crisis. While not much is known about the results of the trip, it is clear that Beijing, along with Moscow, is averse to the UN Security Council mandating the use of force against Iran. Diplomatic sources in Beijing have pointed out that in its internal circulars for party cadres, the CCP leadership has the past several months reiterated that there is no way Beijing will acquiesce in a U.S. invasion of Iran the same way that it did Iraq.
Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Hu’s get-tough American diplomacy is that China would no longer content itself with passively countering what Beijing perceives to be an “anti-China containment policy” spearheaded by Washington. For Hu, offense is the best defense. Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist—an ornate edition of whose masterwork The Art of War was presented by Hu to Bush as a gift—might not exactly have used so many words to describe China’s new-found assertiveness in global one-upmanship. Yet the Hu team is obviously convinced that China now has the economic, diplomatic and military wherewithal to compete with the U.S. head-on—and in some instances, even to outflank it.
This aggressive game-plan goes beyond efforts, made the past couple of months by General Cao and Premier Wen Jiabao in their respective visits to South Korea and Australia, to ensure that these U.S. allies would think twice about following what Washington might want them to do vis-à-vis the PRC. The bigger picture can be seen by taking a closer look at the trips made by Hu—who seems bent on going into the history books as China’s “foreign-policy president”— the past year or so. Take Hu’s ongoing world tour of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya. It is noteworthy that, first, Hu is spending much less time in the U.S. than previous top Chinese cadres did on their state visits; and that symbolically, the U.S. is just one of the pawns—albeit the biggest one—that the Chinese diplomatic juggernaut is determined to maneuver in Beijing’s global chessboard. Most importantly, the level of Beijing’s buying power and military power projection is such that a sizable portion of whatever economic, diplomatic and energy-related gains that Hu may make, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, could be at the expense of the U.S.
The logic of Beijing fully acting out its potential as America’s “strategic competitor” was already evident in trips that Hu had made earlier to Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Last September, Hu’s brief stop-over in New York (to attend functions at the UN and to participate in another “summit” with Bush) was sandwiched between his tours of immediate U.S. neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Moreover, in late 2004, Hu received VIP treatments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba. Given that since 9/11, most of U.S. foreign policy has been preoccupied by events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, ever-more assertive steps that Beijing is taking to compete with the U.S. for oil—and in particular, influence in the Middle East, Africa and the Asia-Pacific—will necessarily detract from Bush’s ability to, in his words, spread the values of freedom and democracy in China.
Hu’s recently concluded trip to the U.S. has also confirmed a new “united front” strategy that Chinese cadres are using in interactions with the United States. More than previous top leaders touring America, Hu seemed to be lavishing the bulk of his attention on audiences outside of the Bush administration. The usually dour CCP General Secretary displayed for the first time a sense of humor and an avuncular touch—with Chinese characteristics—while hobnobbing with captains of industry, workers, as well as professors and students. In Seattle, he charmed Bill Gates with his profession of respect for IPR protection, hugged a Boeing worker, and even joked about his being a closet Starbucks fan. At Yale, Hu even kidded apparently-enraptured students about his willingness to “stay on and not go home” so as to fully answer the 78 questions they had put to him after his 50-minute paean to cultural cross-pollination.
Much more than Deng and even the savvy ex-president Jiang, Hu understands that U.S. presidents—and most politicians—come and go, and that oftentimes it is more important to woo big corporations as well as opinion-makers. In the past couple of years, Beijing has skillfully asked large numbers of U.S. corporations, especially those with plants in the east China “gold coast,” to lobby Washington not to press China too hard on the currency issue. An important focus of Beijing’s business-oriented united-front tactics is to persuade U.S. high-tech firms to put pressure on the White House to selectively lift the ban on the export of dual-use technology to the PRC. Given the headway that Hu seems to have made in waging an assertive diplomacy, it would not be inappropriate for Bush to take an in-depth look at The Art of War the next time he goes to his Texas Range.