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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

China's premier bringing packed agenda to U.S.

By Richard Halloran

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to arrive in Washington today, armed with a potent agenda on Taiwan, North Korea, trade and the value of China's currency.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his pleasure during a visit to Hong Kong during the summer to mark the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's transfer from British to Chinese rule. Wen was scheduled to arrive in Washington today for a visit with President Bush. Trade tensions have run high between the two nations.

Advertiser library photo • July 1, 2003

He will be met by President Bush and White House officials who seem preoccupied with Iraq, the war on terror, and the Middle East — and who are divided over policy on China.

Wen is the head of government and close to President Hu Jintao, the head of state and general secretary of the Communist Party. The premier was trained in geology and engineering and is a technocrat with little experience in foreign policy. Thus, he can be expected to stick close to the party line.

He laid out that line in an unusual interview with editors of the Washington Post in Beijing on Nov. 21. It was a carefully scripted recital, with questions submitted beforehand but with follow-up queries permitted.

Chinese newspapers, Web sites, and embassies published the transcript to give it maximum exposure.

Chinese leaders rarely broadcast their agenda, preferring to keep it out of the public eye at home and abroad before a meeting with foreign leaders, and often disclosing little afterward. Clearly, Wen has signaled that he intends to be taken seriously.

In contrast, the White House has said only that President Bush hopes to fashion "candid, constructive, and cooperative" relations with China. The president and the premier are to meet Tuesday.

Moreover, the Bush administration is split between "neocons," or neo-conservatives, and those who call themselves realists or pragmatists.

The neocons advocate treating China as a potential adversary — reducing military exchanges, applying economic pressure and favoring Taiwan, the island which considers itself a nation but over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

The realists seek to engage China — negotiating economic and political differences and pursuing military exchanges to deter the Chinese by exposing them to U.S. military power.

The realists try to restrain Taiwan to avoid provoking China, which has vowed to use military force if Taiwan declares independence.

The "panda huggers," liberals like former President Clinton who tend toward a pro-China stance, have little influence in the Bush administration and do not figure in this equation.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the Bush posture on China is a failure to understand that China is deadly serious about the dispute over Taiwan.

Wen told the Washington Post, as has every other Chinese leader, that Taiwan "is the most important and sensitive issue" in Sino-U.S. relations.

Pointing to Taiwan's steady movement toward independence, Wen said: "I hope the U.S. government will recognize the gravity and danger of the provocative remarks and actions taken by the leader of the Taiwan authorities."

He referred to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who has been promoting Taiwanese sovereignty as part of his campaign for re-election in March.

Wen wanted the United States to be "very straightforward" in opposing Taiwan independence and to "stop arms sales" to Taiwan. The most crucial question, he said, would be measures China might take if Taiwan declared independence.

"The Chinese people," he said, "will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland."

On North Korea, China has taken the diplomatic lead in trying to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, which has drawn applause from Bush officials.

Wen was optimistic, saying "the positions of the two sides are closer than before."

Behind that, U.S. officials said, the Chinese have told the North Koreans that they must resolve the nuclear issue in six-party negotiations among themselves, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Otherwise, they may find themselves in a war with the United States in which China will not come to their aid.

The U.S. officials cautioned that China might try to exact a price from the United States if Beijing is successful in defusing the North Korean threat. That could require the United States to lessen support for Taiwan, reduce arms sales and press Taiwan to compromise with China.

On trade, Wen indicated that he would take a firm stand against the Bush administration, which wants China to open its markets wider and cut exports to the United States by revaluing its currency to make those exports more expensive.

China is headed toward a $115 billion to $120 billion trade surplus with the United States this year.

Wen said he would propose to Bush that a mechanism "for regular coordination and cooperation" on trade be set up.

That most likely will mean talking, but doing nothing.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times correspondent in Asia.