HU’S VISIT: MORE TALK THAN PROGRESS

Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 10

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Vice President Hu Jintao and his entourage have put a most positive spin on his just-completed U.S. tour, but scanty coverage in the Chinese media seems to indicate that not much was accomplished.

Shortly before he left the United States, Hu said that he had reached a “series of consensus” with his hosts and that both sides were committed to “taking active measures to strengthen dialogue and cooperation.” In summing up the visit, Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, a former ambassador to Washington, said that both countries had decided to expand cooperation in areas including economy and trade, antiterrorism, technology, environment and energy.

It is instructive that Li did not mention Taiwan, the key to bilateral ties. On this thorny issue, Hu, 59, made the requisite tough statement that American sales of sophisticated weapons to the island could lead to a “retrogression” in Sino-U.S. relations. He also asked overseas Chinese to join hands in fighting pro-independence forces on the island.

Chinese Foreign Ministry cadres traveling with Hu said that President George W. Bush and other senior U.S. officials had come up with a “Two No’s” Policy on Taiwan, namely, that America would neither support Taiwan independence nor encourage the development of pro-independence forces. This policy, however, which went unreported in the American and international media, pales beside former President Bill Clinton’s Three No’s stance, enunciated in Shanghai in 1998–a reference to Washington’s objections to Taiwan independence, to “one China, one Taiwan,” and to Taiwan joining global bodies with statehood as a membership criterion.

IN THE SHORTER TERM

Sources close to the Hu entourage said that, while meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials, the vice president cited what Beijing regarded as disturbing evidence of growing American-Taiwan ties since early this year. Apart from arms sales, the Chinese party warned Washington about letting more senior Taiwan officials call on the United States after Taiwan Defense Minister Tang Yiau-ming’s “private visit” to Florida last March.

It is understood that a core objective of Beijing’s Taiwan policy in the coming year is to prevent President Chen Shui-bian from touring America. Such a visit could materialize not long after China’s President Jiang Zemin scheduled October visit. (The Chinese party also raised strong objections to Washington’s backing Taiwan’s bid to secure observer status at the World Health Assembly.) The sources said that Hu was unable to get a commitment from the White House that these developments would not take place. For example, it seems likely that Washington would go on sending senior military advisers to Taiwan. Moreover, the vice president also encountered a number of “pro-Taiwan” members of Congress whose views convinced him that U.S.-Taiwan ties might grow more intimate particularly if Bush were re-elected in 2004.

Diplomatic analysts said President Jiang had not set a high goal for Hu’s maiden U.S. tour, and that he would be happy if the visit did nothing more than reinforce the mechanism for frequent high-level exchanges and prevent a deterioration on the Taiwan front. They also said Hu did succeed in impressing upon the White House Beijing’s anxiety in boosting ties. He made it clear, for example, that neither he nor Jiang would depart from patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s famous U.S. policy of “seeking cooperation and avoiding confrontation” as well as “never tak[ing] the lead and [keeping] a low profile.” The pro-Chinese Hong Kong paper, Wen Wei Po, which often reflects Beijing’s thinking, reported last week that the leadership had decided to stick to the policy of “keeping a low profile” diplomatically–and concentrating on economic development for the foreseeable future.

During his tour of countries including Libya and Iran last month, Jiang made harsh criticisms of Washington’s antiterrorist campaign–and expressed disapproval of the U.S. stationing troops in Central Asia. But Hu, by contrast, did not.

For its part, the United States also went some distance in giving “face” to Jiang’s heir-apparent. There was no evidence, as some conspiracy theorists in Beijing had suggested, that quasi-official American organizations had encouraged anti-Chinese demonstrations during Hu’s visit. Hu was among only a handful of senior Chinese leaders to have visited the Pentagon. And, paradoxically, one of the more concrete results of this trip was reached during discussions with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, deemed an incorrigible hawk by Beijing.

After the brief meeting, Hu told reporters that both sides had agreed to resume military-to-military exchanges, which were stalled after the spy plane episode of April last year. At this stage, it was not certain whether and when high-level military officers from either country would start calling on each other. And a Pentagon spokesperson said afterwards Hu and Rumsfeld had only agreed to start talks on the resumption of military-to-military ties. It also seems unlikely that Washington would lift the long-standing ban on exports of hi-tech products or know-how to China. However, the generally positive and cordial meeting between Rumsfeld and Hu, who is concurrently vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), might serve to boost the atmosphere for improving future military relationships.

Chinese sources said that Jiang, who heads of the Communist party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, had a terse assessment of the Hu visit: “It’s not bad.” At this stage, the president and his Politburo colleagues are more concerned with domestic issues such as preparations for the 16th Congress and unrest in urban and rural areas. Moreover, any concrete steps in ameliorating Sino-American ties could come only during Jiang’s October visit to Washington, which could be the president’s farewell to high-profile diplomacy.

IN THE LONGER TERM

However, from the longer-term perspective, Hu’s failure to secure anything concrete does not augur well for bilateral ties, which have been on a downward spiral thanks to Beijing’s perception of a budding U.S.-Taiwan military relationship.

So-called rightists and hawks in Washington said to be responsible for Washington’s pro-Taiwan tilt were apparently not particularly impressed with Hu’s leadership qualities. And the vice president’s cautious performance in the United States might only confirm his hosts’ impression that China’s succession might be murky–and that Hu might be too preoccupied with factional infighting to concentrate on launching a more vigorous if not aggressive U.S. policy.

The unlikelihood of a resolution of the Chinese-American quarrel over Taiwan, however, may give an opening to hardline elements in China, including the military. Hu’s extraordinary deference to Jiang–demonstrated by the number of times that he referred to the president’s instructions during this visit–seems to show it is increasingly likely that Jiang will hold on to his CMC chairmanship for at least a couple more years.

While Jiang’s remaining on the CMC would mean that the generals would be reined in for the time being, his refusal to retire completely will detract from Hu’s authority. And it might also mean that even after Hu has finally taken over, he will have to give more say to the top brass in foreign and Taiwan policy in return for their political support.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best-known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

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