Far Eastern Economic Review
{short description of image}


Hu Was Here

By Kurt M. Campbell
Issue cover-dated May 16, 2002

The writer is the senior vice-president at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, where he holds the Kissinger Chair

The visit of Chinese Vice-President Hu Jintao, as expected, provided little insight into the man expected to take over from President Jiang Zemin. It did, however, provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the Bush administration when it comes to China. The enigmatic Hu ("enigmatic" being the most over-worked adjective used last week to describe the consummate Chinese Communist Party functionary) came to the United States to perform in one of the most carefully choreographed one-act diplomatic plays in recent memory. Both Beijing and Washington went to extraordinary lengths to prevent the two most feared features of Sino-American summitry from occurring: spontaneity and surprises. Yet despite the strict adherence to the script on both sides, it was still possible to glimpse the profound anxiety behind the scenes, particularly on the U.S. side. Perhaps the last time Washington witnessed so much skilled choreography and latent tension was when the Bolshoi Ballet came to dance at the height of the Cold War.

The concerns inside the senior ranks of the Bush administration over the Hu visit were not because of any worry over what the vice-president would do or say. No, there was a strong sense that Hu would go to great lengths to avoid jeopardizing his ascent by creating a fuss in what is already a very fragile and potentially dangerous relationship. There was also an appreciation in the White House long before Hu's aircraft landed of just how much China would like to avoid problems with the U.S. during a delicate period of political transition at home. The biggest fear was that the Hu trip would trigger another round of intense lobbying and internal discord within the administration over the very basics of China policy that would spill into public view.

The Republican Party is home to those who believe that China is the next great market opportunity for America, as well as to others who see China as the next major enemy of the U.S. These wings coexist uneasily along Washington's corridors of power, and Hu's stopover triggered an intense effort to keep every important detail of the visit secret and policy deliberations under wraps. American officials were under strict orders not to discuss even mundane details of the visit. One senior administration official summed up the visit like this: "They came, we met, they left. All the issues were raised--there were no surprises. We talked about the war on terrorism and efforts to increase trade. Vice-President Hu was skilled in presenting his talking points and representing the positions of his government." Though uttered by an American, these sentiments could as easily have been minted by the propaganda department at the party school in Beijing.

The strange thing about Hu's visit is the extent to which the two sides of the U.S. China-policy fraternity found support for their positions in how the vice-president handled himself during his meetings and speeches. Those who advocate greater engagement--business leaders and earnest sinologists--saw a policy wonk deeply concerned with challenging issues of economic reform and intent upon further opening up and modernizing China. "Blue team" policymakers and military strategists, in contrast, took comfort in the fact that Hu had not been threatening to American interlocutors on the Taiwan issue, a clear result in their minds of a firmer deterrent posture on the part of the U.S. The Bush administration has become adept at operating between and straddling these contrasting world views. "Strategic ambiguity" is now employed not so much as a strategy for keeping peace in the Taiwan Strait (a policy strongly condemned by conservatives as misleading and dangerous), but as a tactic in domestic-policy deliberations for avoiding fratricide among the internal contenders over China policy.

While both sides uttered all the appropriate bromides about better relations and deeper understanding, it's hard not to conclude that the lavish spectacles of recent Sino-U.S. summits are increasingly disembodied from the profound complexities of what is emerging as the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. The exciting economic links, deep (and mutual) political suspicions, grudging acceptance of the need to cooperate in certain arenas (the global war on terrorism and North Korea), growing apprehensions over a future potential showdown over Taiwan and long-term concerns about how both can coexist in Asia, are all obscured or muddied in the bland pronouncements and general pleasantries. When next they meet, Bush and Hu would do better to choreograph less and communicate more.