Guess Hu's Coming to Lunch?

Report Asia

Guess Hu's Coming to Lunch?

September 2, 2005 7 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

The White House's terse announcement on Tuesday that President George W. Bush "will welcome Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House on September 7" was the culmination of months of wrangling between Washington and Beijing. It was emblematic of the strained relations between the two great powers.


The Chinese see their leader's North American visit as a major chance to demonstrate China's rise to global prominence. From the U.S. perspective, however, the visual of a full "state visit," complete with American and Chinese flags fluttering together on Pennsylvania Avenue, would not properly reflect a relationship that is beset with serious political, diplomatic, military, strategic, and trade frictions. President Bush's national security team suggested a "working summit" at the President's Crawford Ranch or at Camp David. Against Chinese importuning, the White House has relented somewhat. Mr. Hu will come to Washington, but the White House still refuses to accord the Chinese President's Washington sojourn the status of "state visit."


A "Working Summit" Agenda

This is unfortunate. As now structured, President Hu's Washington tour will be solely for China's domestic consumption. China's new leader[1] is not eager to engage in substantive exchanges with the United States. Being trapped for a day or two in Crawford, Texas, for example, would force President Hu to address the tectonic shift of strategic distrust between Washington and Beijing that has emerged since the Chinese Communist Party's 16th Congress in November of 2002-which not only reiterated that it would "oppose hegemonism and power politics" (i.e., the United States) and "boost world multipolarization" (i.e., opposing America's role as the sole superpower), but also equated "terrorism" and "hegemonism" as equal threats.


The United States has nothing to apologize for. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently observed that China is clearly a rising "military superpower" but China clearly is not a "status quo" power. If President Hu were to be cooped up at the Crawford Ranch, with hours of one-on-one time with President Bush, he would need credible explanations of why China's military buildup is benign and why China's support of murderous regimes (e.g., Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uzbekistan, and North Korea), rogue states (e.g., Iran and Syria), and other unsavory characters (e.g., Cuba and Venezuela) is perfectly innocent.


President Hu would also be obliged to hear President Bush raise the Chinese government's deliberate lack of attention to "the continuing problem of business-as-usual proliferation by Chinese companies," as former Undersecretary of State John Bolton described the problem earlier this year. In the considered opinion of the Central Intelligence Agency, China remains a "serial proliferator."


Then Mr. Hu would have to defend the rapidly growing numbers of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan (700 at last count) and explain China's recent military exercises with Russia, which included drills with carrier-busting supersonic cruise missiles when no country in the region, save the U.S., has aircraft carriers.


He would also have to listen to American complaints that China pressured the Central Asian "Shanghai Cooperation Organization" alliance into demanding that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan's border areas. At every opportunity, China has undermined the U.S. position in the region, and former president Jiang Zemin has cautioned against "unreserved support for the war on terror."


Another likely point of discussion in a real "working summit" would be China's new assertiveness in Japanese territorial waters. President Bush would no doubt remind his Chinese counterpart that Japan is a staunch U.S. ally. He might also ask why China's Communist Party would order violent demonstrations, complete with police-supplied stones for pitching at the windows of the Japanese embassy and Japanese firms, and he might wonder whether the Party might order similar nationalistic excesses unleashed against the United States in the future. 


If time permitted, President Hu would have to explain why his foreign ministry organized an on-the-record foreign press briefing with a Chinese general known for his extreme views about nuclear war with the United States-unless his government wanted to send a strong message to the United States about its nuclear will. China clearly sees itself as the preeminent nuclear power in Asia and is increasingly indiscreet about it


A 60-Minute Agenda

But in a largely ceremonial "visit"-awkwardly, China insists on calling it a "state visit"-to Washington, President Hu can avoid these questions. To be sure, President Bush will touch on some of these issues in his 60-minute Oval Office summit with Hu on Wednesday morning, but in between platitudes, pleasantries, and translations, there probably will be only time for discussion of North Korea and trade issues.


North Korea

The discussion of North Korea will most likely revolve around President Hu's "sincere desire that the Korean Peninsula be denuclearized" coupled with his unwillingness to say specifically that North Korea must dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Hu may even confide that the recent PRC-Russian war-games near North Korea were a subtle way of pressuring Pyongyang. In return, he will probably urge President Bush to reiterate his "opposition" (as opposed to "non-support") for "Taiwan Independence."


If so, it will be a bad trade. North Korea seems comforted by the thought that China and Russia can dissuade the U.S. from a military strike, while Taiwan's people are increasingly jittery that repeated reports of Bush Administration "opposition" to their separation from China presages America's abandonment of their democracy.


And then there's the delicate issue of China's abetting proliferation. Recent revelations from the Pakistani president that nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had transferred uranium isotope centrifuges to North Korea support the CIA's contention that Khan sold North Korea "the complete package," from raw uranium hexafluoride to the centrifuges needed to enrich it into nuclear bomb fuel. Khan sold Chinese nuclear weapons blueprints to Libya and most certainly to North Korea. All these materials were shipped by air across Chinese airspace by Pakistani military aircraft. It is extremely hard to avoid the conclusion that China at least acquiesced in the transfer, if it did not facilitate it outright. This, too, would be a likely topic for a real Bush-Hu working summit.


A more pressing issue is that China's two years of involvement in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions have resulted in no significant progress. In fact, the situation has, arguably worsened, as Pyongyang removed irradiated fuel cores from its Yongbyon reactor, possibly fashioning a number of fissile plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. When North Korea admitted on February 10 that it already had nuclear weapons, China's reaction was agnostic. "We are still researching the situation," it announced, and China continues to say that it is uncertain whether Pyongyang has a nuclear device. Moreover, China's steadfast insistence that the Six Party Talks are the "only" way to address the situation may mean that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons indefinitely. And China's insistence that North Korea has a "right" under international law to continue building nuclear reactors for "peaceful purposes" reflects a decision by President Hu Jintao himself that China will not support an effective inspection regime to verify a Pyongyang denuclearization agreement -- in the highly unlikely event that Pyongyang ever makes one.


President Bush must not allow China to temporize North Korea's nuclear status until it is universally accepted. He should warn that if the Talks do not produce results soon, the only way to break the impasse is to remove the matter from the Beijing venue to the United Nations Security Council, where it belongs. He must also caution his Chinese counterpart that America would consider Beijing's resistance to Security Council sanctions against North Korea (or Iran, for that matter) as evidence that China supports nuclear proliferation as a matter of state policy.


Lunch Only, No Dinner

The mood in Washington is not amenable to a "state visit." The U.S. Congress is increasingly alarmed at China's military buildup, perceived cheating on currency rates and predatory energy policies, product piracy, and the ballooning trade surplus with the U.S. On top of all this are revelations about Chinese espionage, nuclear proliferation, and its ever-deteriorating respect for civil and political rights.


With a serious summit on the real issues facing U.S.-China relations rejected by the Chinese, President Bush is not ready for a "state visit" from his Chinese counterpart, either. Yet, his staffers apparently relented-a visit being better than none. There will be a greeting on the White House lawn, a 21-gun salute with ruffles and flourishes, and two nights at Blair House. There will be a meeting in the Oval Office, though President Bush is not rumored to be looking forward to it. But he has drawn the line: There will be no official "state visit." And there will only be a luncheon in the White House-no dinner.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Mr. Hu is still in the process of consolidating his power in Beijing. He has been on the job as China's supreme commander for less than a year, as China's president for two years, and as Communist Party general secretary for almost three years.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow