Bush's Beijing trip - high hopes, low expectations

Reprinted with permission from The Straits Times, February 18, 2002

Given the high stakes in Sino-American relations, United States President George W. Bush's trip to Beijing this week represents the most important opportunity for his administration to engage Chinese leaders on a wide range of bilateral issues.

After a year of wild swings in bilateral ties, hopes are high that the US and China will seize this valuable occasion to rebuild mutual trust and lay a more solid foundation for a stable relationship.

Indeed, the leaders in both countries have spared no efforts in recent months to improve the atmospherics of their ties.

In Washington, President Bush thanked China publicly for its cooperation in the US war on terrorism in his recent State of the Union speech.

(Unfortunately, the 'Axis of Evil' is the only thing most people know or remember about the speech.)

His administration has also been restrained in criticising Beijing. Even the traditionally-hostile American media appears to be cooperating.

Preoccupied with the war on terrorism, American newspapers and television networks have kept their (usually negative) coverage of China to a bare minimum.

Beijing's leaders have been, perhaps, even more eager to demonstrate goodwill. The Chinese government recently released to the US a Tibetan music scholar who had served seven years for 'espionage'.

The discovery of listening devices planted allegedly by American intelligence agencies in President Jiang Zemin's brand-new Boeing 767 'Air Force One' was treated as a non-event by Beijing, lest it create a political storm and derail the planned summit.

Beijing has recently conveyed its softening stance towards Taiwan's governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which espouses a pro-independence platform.

Washington is among the most important audiences of such gestures of flexibility and reconciliation. Yet, even such positive dynamics - rare in a relationship prone to accidents and sudden deterioration - have failed to lift expectations of what the Beijing summit will actually yield.

Neither side anticipates any breakthrough agreements or movements on the most contentious issues, such as Taiwan, missile defence and human rights.

There are many reasons for such pessimism. Washington and Beijing may share common interests in many areas, such as peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in South Asia, anti-terrorism, and open trade, but their interests and values also collide.

Conflict of interests, such as over Taiwan, missile defence, human rights and non-proliferation, is so deeply built into Sino-American ties that genuine solutions would require sustained negotiations, changes in the mindset of the political elite in both countries, mutual concessions and cooperation from third parties (such as Taipei).

It is unrealistic to expect a brief summit to achieve the diplomatic breakthroughs that have eluded past American and Chinese leaders.

The possibility of significant mutual accommodation on critical bilateral issues is remote because, in both capitals, there is a determined minority among the political elite which has long concluded that the two countries are destined to clash.

Despite their small number, such individuals occupy key positions in each country's national-security apparatus and wield disproportionate influence over policy.

In many instances, they hold virtual veto power.

CONCRETE OUTCOMES NOT LIKELY AT SUMMIT

Thus, efforts to remove the obstacles to Sino-American relations are likely to fail, unless the moderates in both countries manage to build a domestic coalition capable of countering and containing the influence of this small but fast-growing group of hardliners.

To use diplomatic jargon, Mr Bush's trip may produce few, if any, 'deliverables' - specific bilateral agreements on important issues.

This raises the question about the real objectives of Mr Bush's trip to Beijing.

Cynics may argue that the President, a man known to stick to his pledges, is merely honouring his promise made many months ago to visit Beijing as part of his trip to Asia. (Although Mr Bush attended the Shanghai Apec summit in October last year, he cancelled his scheduled stops in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul.)

Of course, flying into Beijing on the 30th anniversary of former president Richard Nixon's historic journey serves as an excellent photo opportunity for a president who enjoys sky-high approval ratings for his conduct of foreign policy after the events of Sept 11.

Such views overlook the fact that only top-level commitment, attention and management can help maintain a stable Sino-American relationship.

The trip may yield modest concrete results in improving relations, but its importance lies in restarting a long-term process of engagement with China which Mr Bush, as the Republican presidential candidate, once criticised and even vowed to jettison.

Thus, the benefits of his Beijing summit may be intangible, but not trivial.

Firstly, his visit will help reset the tone of US-China relations. After causing much alarm in Beijing with his characterisation of China as America's 'strategic competitor', the US President has recently redefined American ties with China as 'candid, constructive cooperation'.

He is expected to highlight the cooperative aspect of bilateral relations in his dialogue with Chinese leaders, and particularly in his live televised speech at the prestigious Qinghua University.

Coming directly from Mr Bush himself, such friendly rhetoric is likely to reassure both Chinese leaders and the public, many of whom are deeply concerned about US intent towards China.

Secondly, Mr Bush is expected to pursue a top US priority in its war on terrorism - the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

In the past, Washington and Beijing remained divided over this issue. China tried persistently to link its cooperation in the non-proliferation area with US weapons sales to Taiwan, while the Americans steadfastly rejected the linkage and used threats and sanctions to coerce Beijing into compliance.

COOPERATION ON NON-PROLIFERATION ISSUES

In the post-Sept 11 world, however, progress is more likely. The Bush administration has put more pressure on Beijing to be more forthcoming.

China has also come to understand the futility of linking its cooperation in non-proliferation with the Taiwan issue.

More importantly, Beijing is beginning to understand the dangers of WMD proliferation, especially because it faces threats from domestic and international terrorism.

So, the most likely 'deliverable' is a deal in which China publishes a list of dual-use items subject to export control, in exchange for American relaxation of export controls over the transfer of high-technology products and satellites to China.

A related objective for the American President is to obtain Chinese cooperation in the next phase of the war on terrorism.

Given the concerns aroused around the world by his 'Axis of Evil' speech, Mr Bush may want to reassure his Chinese hosts that the US has no imminent plans for military action, especially against China's long-time but troublesome ally, North Korea.

As the Bush strategy against Iraq is likely to be spearheaded by a diplomatic campaign to isolate Baghdad further and obtain a United Nations Security Council resolution to force Iraq to let weapons inspectors back in, Beijing's cooperation, if not acquiescence, is needed at the Security Council, where China has a veto.

Thirdly, as a president fond of building personal friendships with other world leaders, Mr Bush may want to use this opportunity to check out China's fourth-generation leaders, such as the heir apparent, Vice-President Hu Jintao.

However, he is likely to be disappointed. President Jiang may not want to share the limelight with his colleagues. According to the White House, Mr Bush will meet Mr Hu, but not in a one-on-one setting.

The greatest beneficiary of the Beijing summit is Mr Jiang, who is totally absorbed in a power-transition process that leaves his future role an open question. A smooth Sino-American summit, even one devoid of substance, could bolster his prestige as a heavyweight statesman.

Finally, President Bush also wants to draw a firm line on the two most intractable issues that have plagued bilateral relations in recent years: human rights and Taiwan.

Given his personal concerns over religious freedom, he will raise the issue of religious persecution in China.

On the Taiwan issue, he is also likely to restate the US commitment to a 'one China' policy in the most general terms and disappoint his hosts with no specific promises to adjust his administration's pro-Taiwan policy tilt.

Because religious freedom and Taiwan are the pet issues of the Republican right, his unyielding posture should protect him from accusations of being soft on China.

On the eve of his departure for Asia, many in Washington were wondering whether the anticipated meagre results of a trip to Beijing were worth the trouble, especially given the President's mounting international and domestic challenges.

Now it seems that Chinese leaders should ask themselves the same question as well.

The writer is a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Washington. He is a regular contributor to The Straits Times.