China's new role
President Hu's trip raises questions about the part China will play in relation to the United States. Will the nations be equal players, responsible stakeholders or global competitors?
AS IMPORTANT as they might seem, high-profile meetings of world leaders are often well-scripted, carefully planned photo opportunities designed to send a message to domestic audiences, but often yielding few concrete results.
President Hu Jintao's first visit last month to the United States as Chinese president was well thought out in advance. Long before he left Beijing, Hu dispatched Politburo member and well-known international negotiator Vice Premier Wu Yi to the United States with a delegation of more than 200 leading Chinese business executives.
Wu's delegation first stopped in Hawaii to pen a memorandum of understanding with Governor Lingle to promote Chinese tourism to the islands. Chinese tourists visiting Hawaii not only would create another market for Hawaii tourism but also offer some help in reducing America's $201 billion trade deficit with the People's Republic. However, increased Chinese tourism depends on the U.S. government liberalizing its visa regulations for mainland Chinese tourists, which is somewhat unlikely given the long-term effort to liberalize tourist visas for South Korean tourists.
From Hawaii, Wu proceeded to Washington, D.C., to meet with Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Porter to discuss ways of reducing China's trade surplus. High on the agenda was the protection of U.S. intellectual property rights (computer software, recorded music and movies) for which the Chinese presented the 48-page "China's Action Plan on Intellectual Property Rights Protection 2006." Moreover, Chinese government contracts would be opened for U.S. bidding, and the ban on U.S. beef exports would be lifted. While in Washington, other members of Wu's delegation visited 14 cities, signing contracts totaling $16.1 billion in purchases of software, farm goods and Boeing aircraft. In international terms, the $16.1 billion is an insignificant amount. One-quarter of that amount is represented by purchase of the aircraft, many parts of which are produced by Boeing's Chinese partners.
Arriving in Everett, Wash., Hu was out to win Americans over. Alighting from his aircraft, he greeted the crowd with a wave while holding the hand of his wife, Liu Yongqing. Other than young lovers strolling on Shanghai's moonlit Bund, such a public display of affection is unthinkable in China, especially for a 67-year-old of Hu's stature.
The nerdy-looking Hu was introduced by Microsoft cofounder and Chairman Bill Gates, who touted the president's engineering background and government service, omitting his tenure as first secretary of the Chinese Communist Party of Tibet, where he won kudos from the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping for quickly suppressing a political demonstration in 1988. Afterward, Deng catapulted Hu into the Politburo standing committee, the CCP's highest decision-making body, where most members were in their 70s or 80s; Hu was only 49. During his West Coast stay, Hu was always addressed or referred to as "president"; however, the source of his real power is his position as general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission, titles that might create a negative impression among the American public.
A common Chinese strategy in seeking better relations with a society or country that have second thoughts about a closer relationship with China is to curry favor with prominent business leaders. Such was their strategy in the return of Hong Kong. Currently, the Chinese seek to prevent Taiwan from further advocating independence by reemphasizing the economic benefits Taiwan businesses derive from mainland investments. Japan's economic recovery has largely been fueled by trade with China. As a result, key Japanese business leaders are putting pressure on their government to improve its poor relationship with China.
IN THAT American big business has been a consistent key driver of American China policy, it's not surprising that Hu's reception at Boeing by business leaders was so effusive. In the reception line was former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, architect of America's opening to China in 1972. The secretary now runs Kissinger and Associates, an international consulting firm catering to large corporate clients doing business abroad, and often is referred to as America's leading "panda hugger" for his unswerving advocacy of the Sino-American relationship. No wonder then that in television coverage Hu was shown giving the panda hugger a big hug -- another un-Chinese gesture.
Hu's warm reception by big business leaders in Washington state stood in stark contrast with the cool government reception he received in Washington, D.C. Hu's originally planned trip to the United States was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina, prompting a number of administration insiders to quip "thank God for Katrina." The United States seems conflicted by China. Yes, it wants a vibrant business relationship, but feels that China often does not play by the rules and spirit of international trade. Based on the February 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the United States sees China as a key security threat and is far from accepting Beijing's view that its growing global influence is a "peaceful rise." Yet, the United States has begun to call China a "responsible stakeholder" in global politics and is seeking ways to mutually control nuclear proliferation and terrorism while denying China the sense of equality it seeks.
Both Hu and Bush face uncertain domestic challenges and had hoped to use the summit to bolster their respective domestic standings. Despite its economic liberalization and reintegration into the world starting in the late 1970s, China is a politically fragile country where the CCP's monopoly on power is confronted by a growing record number of riots and demonstrations sparked by land-rights issues, party corruption, and inequitable distribution of wealth between those living in developed coastal cities and the countryside. To maintain popular legitimacy, the CCP not only needs to keep China on a path of continual economic development, but it also must show that under its leadership China is a highly respected member of the global community, equal in stature to any other nation. President Bush's job approval rating is at an all-time low of 29 percent. Awash in popular discontent over Iraq, high gas prices and the likelihood that the Democratic Party will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2006 midterm elections, Bush's second term is not going well at all.
IN THE END, neither president got much of what he wanted. When planning to visit the president of the United States, world leaders angle for an invitation to Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch to convey to their home audiences that they have a special relationship with him. Hu declined an invitation to the ranch. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Chinese tend to look down at anything related to the countryside. The countryside is generally considered culturally backward and lacking sophistication. To the Chinese, a state visit to Washington, D.C., centered on the White House and complete with all the trappings and formality that proper protocol requires would have a much more positive symbolic effect on Chinese television viewers than a trip to dusty Crawford. Moreover, Hu would show that China was an equal to the US.
Instead of a White House state dinner, Hu got a one-hour White House luncheon, reviewed the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps performance on the White House south lawn and received a 21-gun salute. While that might have served as some form of consolation, it was marred by the White House announcing the playing of the Chinese national anthem as the national anthem of the "Republic of China," the official name given to the government on Taiwan, rather than as the national anthem of the "People's Republic of China."
Things got even worse as an erstwhile member of the press corps displayed a Falun Gong (a religious group outlawed in China) banner and loudly heckled Hu as he was making his comments on the south lawn. The heckler, Wenyi Wang, a pathologist originally from northeastern China and now a New York City resident, has a record of heckling Chinese leaders. Given her history and the resulting embarrassment to Hu, and although Bush apologized, the Chinese felt that the U.S. side did not take sufficient care in making preparations for Hu's visit. If nothing else, in their joint press conference Hu did get a clear statement from Bush that must have made him happy: "I do not support Taiwan independence."
ALTHOUGH DISTRACTED by Iraq and having low expectations, the United States still wanted a lot from Hu's visit. High on its list was revaluation of China's currency, the yuan. The United States maintains that China unfairly manipulates the exchange rate of its currency in order to sell its products abroad at a cheaper price. Thus America's huge trade deficit with China and the harmful effect on certain sectors of the U.S. economy, such as the furniture and garment industries. Hu showed no interest in revaluation. In fairness, he could not since any revaluation would result in a loss of Chinese jobs. He did suggest, however, that in the future China's economic development would be based more on expanded domestic demand than on exports.
A key component of U.S. foreign policy is the advancement of democracy. Hu contended, without suggesting how, that China was indeed democratic and talked about the future need for "managed democracy" and "supervised democracy" without spelling out the nature of either. He reiterated China's commitment to democracy in a speech at Yale University. At a time Americans are concerned about abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Gharib plus the Patriot Act and domestic spying, the US risks the appearance of creating a double standard by too strongly advocating democracy. Then again one wonders just how vigorously democracy can be promoted to a key creditor who has shown no real interest in such a system.
THE CHINESE showed little interest in exerting more influence on North Korea to denuclearize or in trying to persuade the Sudanese government to halt genocide in Darfur. The Sudan is a Chinese energy supplier. The United States and China have clearly divergent positions on Iran. The United States does not accept the Iranian government's position that its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes. The United States and the European Union want to see Iranian nuclear development suspended and have threatened to seek sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, where China maintains veto power. China sees Iran as an oil supplier and has invested heavily in the country's oil infrastructure.
It might not seem that Chinese diplomacy is on a roll, looking at Hu's trip to the United States. However, after he left the United States he went to Saudi Arabia, a key Chinese energy supplier and another major U.S. creditor that shares a similar lack of interest in democracy, where he was warmly greeted and signed energy, trade and security agreements. Iran emphasized its wish to become a full member in the Chinese-driven Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a growing multilateral defense organization seeking to limit U.S. influence in Central Asia. And it was announced that China would accelerate oil exploration with Cuba in an area only 50 miles from the Florida Keys. Meanwhile back in Washington, D.C., the Bush administration remains locked on to Iraq while fumbling for a way to more successfully deal with China's rise.
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian International Relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly column for the Star-Bulletin.