For Hu and Bush, a Long List of Fires to Fight

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

April 18, 2006

The summit meeting in Washington on Thursday between President George W. Bush and President Hu Jintao of China comes at a propitious moment. On each side, suspicions of the other’s actions and motives have been growing.

For Washington, frustrations have risen over Beijing’s foot-dragging in the UN Security Council regarding moves to condemn Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, and its refusal to pressure North Korea to abandon its declared nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration also perceives an attempt by China to “lock up” global energy supplies. The administration is particularly troubled when China signs contracts with countries that Washington views as “rogue” or troublesome states, such as Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. China has sold arms to these states and shielded them from international condemnation

Such moves run counter to the administration’s desire for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has argued that China tends to “free ride,” shying away from its responsibilities as a major power.

China, for its part, questions U.S. military deployments in Asia, which several Chinese analysts view as an attempt to strategically encircle China. The characterization of China as a potential adversary in the Defense Department’s recent released Quadrennial Defense Review fuels this perception in Beijing. President Hu is likely to seek clarification of American strategic intentions.

China is concerned, too, about the precedent of a double standard that has been set by the recent U.S.- India nuclear agreement. More broadly, and not surprisingly, Beijing is wary of U.S. attempts to enlist India in a strategic encirclement of China.

China would also like Washington to do more to encourage Japan to confront the “history issue.” The rift between China and Japan over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are buried, and over Japanese history textbooks, does not serve U.S. interests or East Asian stability.

China views America, with its official silence on these issues, as complicit in Japanese obstinacy, adding to Beijing’s concern about the tightening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and U.S. encouragement of a greater regional and global security role for Japan.

Hu will also raise the question of Taiwan’s status. While Beijing and Washington have cooperated well, since Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to the White House in December 2003, to keep the lid on the potential for Taiwan independence, President Chen Shui-bian’s government in Taiwan continues an incremental push of its independence agenda.

While Taiwan has always been the most sensitive issue in the relationship, Beijing and Washington have managed it well in recent years. But regular high-level communication is a necessary condition to successful management, and this meeting offers another chance for both sides to coordinate strategy.

Among America’s other concerns regarding China, which Bush is likely to raise on Thursday, are the trade deficit, intellectual property rights and human rights.

The trade deficit reached $203 billion in 2005, as core industries across the United States have gone under in the face of outsourcing of production to China. Congressional calls for a full floatation of the Chinese currency and legislative threats to invoke across-the- board 27 percent tariffs on Chinese goods have added fuel to the fire.

The Chinese have tried to reduce the pressure, in advance of the Hu visit, by sending a large commercial delegation on an U.S. buying spree, signing contracts estimated at $16.2 billion for a range of goods, including 80 Boeing aircraft. In fact, China is now America’s fastest growing export market, but this is little noticed as long as the trade deficit with that nation remains America’s greatest.

On the eve of Hu’s visit, the Joint Committee on Commerce and Trade, a bilateral U.S.-China body, reached agreement on a range of new Chinese actions aimed at stemming copyright piracy. The agreement is promising, but it remains to be seen if the Chinese government will actually enforce it.

Human rights in China remain contentious. In its last two annual reports on the issue, the State Department asserted that respect for human rights was worsening in China, while China now issues its own assessment of U.S. human rights infringements.

Bush and Hu will be lucky to touch briefly on all of these topics. In some past Chinese-American summits, the two leaders have been content to engage in a more philosophical exchange about the value of their relationship. They may do so again this time, and that too would be useful, but given the pressing importance of the issues at hand, it is likely to be a real working summit.