Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 5

Precisely thirty years to the day after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, President George W. Bush arrived in Beijing. Although the Chinese press made much of the symbolism, the two visits were quite different. Nixon, an unpopular president trying to wind down an even more unpopular war in an area distant from most Americans’ concerns, aimed for maximum publicity. The thirteen-hour time difference between Washington and Beijing notwithstanding, events were scheduled for prime-time television viewing in the United States. Americans were mesmerized by performances of colorful revolutionary operas, and enchanted by the panda bears that Chinese leader Mao Zedong presented to Nixon.

By contrast, Bush arrived as a self-confident president basking in high approval ratings. These partly reflected the public’s feeling that he was running a successful campaign against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who had killed thousands of civilians in direct attacks on U.S. territory. Nixon had visited China and China only; Bush arrived after trips to Japan and South Korea, thus indicating the importance of American relations with other Asian states. Whereas Nixon’s visit consumed an entire week, Bush scheduled only thirty hours on Chinese soil and allowed a bare minimum of nonbusiness events. The photo-op sensitive press obligingly gave air time to Chinese children holding tiny U.S. flags and serenading Bush with “Edelweiss” —apparently they believe it to be an American song—and Chinese President Jiang Zemin serenading George and Laura Bush with “O Sole Mio.” Most viewers, however, were quite literally tuned out. They were mesmerized by ice skating events at the Winter Olympics, the search for the murderers of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the latest stage of the unfolding war against terrorism.

The substance of the two visits was as different as their tones. From the time Nixon’s travel plans were announced, it was clearly understood that the trip would bring about a geopolitical realignment of momentous import. Bush’s visit, it was made known beforehand, would produce no new communiques or major changes in policies. The best that could be hoped for was, in the bland language of diplomacy, to seek common ground and reserve differences of opinion. Most of the common ground is to be found in truisms, such as the desirability of peace and stability in Asia, the need for economic development and the necessity of protecting the environment. Unfortunately, achievement of these uncontroversial goals depends on careful management of the ongoing controversial issues between the two countries. These may be briefly summarized as:

  • the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Taiwan
  • human rights
  • trade

While all of these were discussed, public statements do not necessarily reflect everything that may have been decided in private conversations between the two leaders.

On the record, Bush definitely admonished China to cease exports of missile technology, but did not offer to rescind American plans to build missile defenses, which Beijing has suggested as a reasonable quid pro quo. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s hypothesis that, failure to reach an agreement on the PRC’s missile aid to rogue states notwithstanding, the Chinese will be “careful” about not doing so seems unduly optimistic. A few days before Bush was to leave for Beijing, U.S. intelligence agents informed him that, despite having signed an agreement in November 2000 to cease missile-related sales that could help any country deliver nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and its professed eagerness to end terrorism, the PRC continues to supply missile technology to Pakistan and Iran. China argues that weapons programs begun before November 2000 must first be “grandfathered” before it will implement the agreement. America is unwilling to concede this.

Pakistan has long received military aid from China, which wants to build up Pakistan as a counterweight to India; Chinese aid is believed to have helped Pakistan to develop its nuclear arsenal. Iran has been an important buyer of Chinese missile technology and wants to replace its liquid-fuel missiles with China’s more reliable and accurate solid-fuel missiles. Jiang Zemin also remains opposed to American efforts to depose Saddam Hussein; Beijing has been a major arms exporter to Iraq in the past.

With regard to Taiwan, Bush reaffirmed America’s obligation to come to that country’s aid if the mainland attacked, making more explicit a commitment that his predecessors preferred to leave ambiguous. He invoked the Taiwan Relations Act—only mentioned once before in China by an American president—and did not publicly mention the three communiques signed between the US and China between 1972 and 1982. The Beijing leadership considers the three communiques to be the cornerstone of the U.S-China relationship, and refuses to recognize the validity of the Taiwan Relations Act. Bush also did not mention the outcome of eventual unification between the mainland and Taiwan, as Clinton had done, nor did he repeat Clinton’s controversial “three noes,” [no support for Taiwan independence, no support for “one China, one Taiwan,” no support for Taiwan’s entry into international organization for which sovereignty is a criterion]. Although U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice denied that there had been any change in American policy toward Taiwan, what Bush did not say may have been as important as what he did say. Supporters of Taiwan’s continued independent status were pleased.

In a speech to students at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, Bush praised religious values and described his country as a nation with the soul of a church. Freedom, he argued, entails tolerance for diversity, and in diversity there is strength. This was exemplified by the massive spontaneous cooperation by people of all races and religions to rescue the victims of the September 11 attacks. Diversity, he continued, is not disorder. Debate is not strife. Dissent is not revolution. As if to underscore that they would not be receptive to such blandishments, the Chinese government arrested several dozen Christians on the day Bush’s visit began. And, though Chinese television carried Bush’s speech live, the country’s official news agency edited out almost half of his remarks, mainly those concerning faith and freedom in the published version thereof. This included even such innocuous sentences as those praising the heroic efforts of police and fire fighters during the September 11 disaster. For the record, Jiang Zemin stated that, though not personally a believer, he had read the Bible, the Koran and the Buddhist scriptures. Still, he added, whatever religion people believe in, they must obey the law. Those who had been arrested were not apprehended because of their religious beliefs, but because they had broken the law.

Bush also addressed trade problems. For the past several years, America’s largest trade deficit has been with the PRC. Although the mainland’s recent entry into the World Trade Organization was supposed to provide a level playing field for American exporters to compete in the Chinese market, there are already signs that the PRC is evading certain commitments that it made as a condition of membership. An issue of particular salience is that of soybeans, which the PRC has refused to import due to concerns of genetic alteration. Bush sought, but failed to obtain, an agreement to give American producers more time to comply with biotechnology regulations.

While neither side got what it hoped for from the visit, official reaction was upbeat. Though no important agreement was concluded, the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the two leaders’ talks as “positive, constructive, and fruitful.” U.S. National Security Adviser Rice expressed satisfaction that the talks had enabled the American side to better understand the Chinese side’s approach to various issues. For now, at least, it would seem that neither side wants to provoke the other. Their common desire to root out Islamic fundamentalist terrorism may be an important factor in this. It is ironic that George Bush, who ridiculed Clinton’s characterization of China as a strategic partner, might be able to achieve such a relationship with the PRC. But it is more likely that one or more of the ongoing irritants between the two countries reassume increased salience in the near future, before the partnership can be consolidated.

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami.