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Hu Jintao's Visit to the United States: Uneasy Partnership

Dr. Srikanth Kondapalli was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 09, 2006

    During his four-day visit to the United States from April 18 to 21, 2006, President of the People's Republic of China (PRC) Hu Jintao attended a dinner hosted by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, visited the Boeing plant at Seattle, met President George W. Bush at the White House, attended a dinner hosted by US business firms like Wal-Mart, General Motors, Citigroup and Walt Disney and addressed the Yale University in New Haven. While bilateral economic and trade issues dominated this visit, an uneasy partnership is evolving between the two countries on issues related to global and regional challenges, political issues and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

    The context of the visit provides for some interesting insights into the dynamics of the US-China relations. Firstly, this is the first such visit by Hu after assuming all the top positions of political and military power in China. Although, American and Chinese leaders met several times at different fora, official bilateral visits have been few. US Presidents visited China 10 times: in 1972 (Nixon), 1975 (Ford), 1979 (Carter), 1984 (Reagan), 1989 (Bush Sr.), 1997 (Clinton), 1998 (Clinton), 2001 (Bush for the APEC meeting at Shanghai), 2002 (Bush), and in 2005 (Bush). High-level Chinese leaders made seven visits to the US during this period: Deng Xiaoping as Vice Premier in 1979, Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984, President Li Xiannian in 1985, President Jiang Zemin in 2002, Premier Wen Jiabao in 2002, Hu Jintao first as Vice President in 2002 and now as President in 2006.

    Secondly, China's assumption of the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April 2006 gives it a certain leverage on issues that are a cause of discomfort for the US. These are related to Iran's nuclear programme, Sudan and human rights. While China has not used its veto power in UNSC on issues other than Taiwan, it has the potential to block any sanctions or use of force on other countries.

    Thirdly, the recent period has been witness to a schism in US and Chinese policies towards the other. Chinese policy is in the process of a gradual transformation from the economy as focus to contesting, in various degrees, US "hegemony and power politics" in Asia and beyond. China has assiduously worked to build coalitions in Asia, Africa and South America to keep the US influence away and enhance its own position and leadership. Recently concluded sessions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the East Asian Summit, Sino-Russian joint exercises, and the like, point towards this direction. On the US side, high-level officials like Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld have expressed concerns on the growing Chinese military might and its possible impact on the US in Asia or other regions. A month before Hu's visit, Rice, during a trip to Australia, expressed "concern" over Chinese military capabilities. Rumsfeld criticized, at his speech in Singapore in June 2005, the Chinese defence budget hike though no country threatens China. The recent assessments of US National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defence Review advocated the necessity to follow a "hedge" strategy against a possible superpower in China. The latest strategy envisages redeployments of US assets and refurbishments at Guam and in Asia. On the other hand, reflecting the strengthening of its "engagement" policy, the US has upgraded interactions with China. The US dialogue with China has intensified, though this has been downgraded with other Asian countries. These include "senior dialogues" by Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick, Treasury Department, Departments of State and Energy in the recent period. Indeed, Zoellick, Rice and others have argued in favour of incorporating China within the ambit of US strategy if China behaves as a "responsible stakeholder in the international system."

    Fourthly, in order to placate the US, China has announced multi-billion dollar deals. In general, China has followed such tactics to woo Western countries by giving "concessions" such as in business deals, releasing dissidents or announcing counter proliferation measures. Accordingly, a week before Hu's visit, China purchased nearly US$16 billion of American goods, including 80 Boeing aircraft (worth about $4.6 billion), agricultural and IT products. During his stopover at Seattle, Hu mentioned that China is planning to purchase about 2,000 planes in the next 15 years. This is probably a response to calls for bridging the Chinese trade surplus with the US worth about $202 billion in 2005. While Taiwan's Legislative Yuan is yet to clear a pending bill to buy $18 billion worth arms from the US, China appeared to be wooing the most appealing of all among US interests - multibillion dollar business deals. Also, before embarking on his US visit, Hu hosted a red-carpet ceremony to visiting Kuomintang leader Lien Chen and called for resuming "talks [with Taiwan] on an equal footing as soon as possible" and reminded him of the 1992 consensus on "one China". This is in response to Taiwan President Chen Shuibian's abolition of the national unification council in February 2006.

    Eventually, the meeting between Hu and Bush was not without its usual pinpricks that characterize China's relations with the outside world. Although these were not decisive in affecting bilateral relations, they do point towards underlying tensions. The US downgraded Hu's visit to that of an official "working visit" rather than a state visit. Seventeen Taiwanese protested at Lafayette Park near the White House. Wang Wenyi, a reporter with Epoch Times, protested in the White House lawns against Chinese curbs on the Falun Gong. An announcer at the White House referred to the PRC as Republic of China. Hu, for his part, made critical references to, in his speech at Yale University, "ideological obstacles and prejudices" towards China in the United States.

    Discussions between the two leaders indicated further divisions, though they both agreed to enhance bilateral trade and cooperation. Hu said that by this visit Beijing wanted "to enhance dialogues, expand common ground, deepen mutual trust and cooperation and to promote the all-around growth of constructive and cooperative China-U.S. relations in the 21st century." The two countries, according to Hu, share "important common strategic interests" including economic co-operation and trade, security, public health, energy, and environmental protection. Hu argued for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean and Iranian issues "in a manner that benefits both countries."

    Though Bush supported "the emergence of China that is peaceful and prosperous, and that supports international institutions," he termed overall relations as "candid and cooperative," which reflected tensions on issues related to Taiwan, limited US access to Chinese markets, currency exchange rate reform, intellectual property rights violations, etc. While opposing any "unilateral changes in the status quo by either side" in the Taiwan Straits, Bush nudged Hu to do more on the North Korean imbroglio, institute freedom of religion, assembly and Internet. These views provide for a wide difference in the respective agendas of the two countries and reflect a certain uneasiness in managing bilateral relations that have been acquiring strategic proportions in the recent period.