Time to tackle China

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 19/04/06):

China's president, Hu Jintao, is no showman. His four-day US visit, culminating in a White House summit tomorrow, is unlikely to see a repeat of Deng Xiaoping's antics in 1979, when he donned a 10-gallon cowboy hat, or Jiang Zemin's 1997 recital of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. There will be no meet-the-people walkabouts in Seattle or Washington. Instead Mr Hu will concentrate on what he does best: promoting the security and economic interests of the world's foremost aspiring superpower - while trying, for now at least, to keep the US happy.

To that end, Mr Hu sent his vice-premier, Wu Yi, and 200 businessmen and officials on a US tour last week, dispensing contracts worth $16bn (£9bn). Meetings are scheduled with Boeing and Bill Gates at Microsoft. And when he meets George Bush he will try to allay growing US unease over its $202bn bilateral trade deficit, intellectual property piracy, and Beijing's undervalued currency. Strategic divergences over Iran and North Korea's nuclear programmes, and Taiwan, may also be played down by Beijing.

While Mr Hu's game-plan seems clear, Mr Bush could choose not to play ball. The US president has never made up his mind how to deal with China's rise. He initially rebranded it a "strategic competitor" , not the "strategic partner" envisaged by the Clinton administration. After 9/11 he changed tack, seeking Beijing's support in the "war on terror".

But Mr Bush obtained no help in Afghanistan or Iraq. And he has watched as China has moved relentlessly into African and Latin American markets, undercutting Washington with its bids for energy and other natural resources while building bridges to administration hate figures such as Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. Beijing has blocked US demands for tough UN sanctions on Sudan, Burma and now Iran.

The US decision to downgrade Mr Hu to an "official" rather than "state" visit was a measure of its "low expectations [for the summit] and is the latest in a series of public spats between the two countries", wrote Peter Kwong in The Nation. The administration was particularly angered by China's rejection of its human rights criticisms on the ground "that a government responsible for the Abu Ghraib prison abuses has no business disparaging others".

Yet some say Mr Bush is playing a strong hand weakly. "The huge American investment in China in the last quarter of a century ($51bn in 2005) has helped lift some 280 million Chinese out of poverty," said George Melloan in the Wall Street Journal. "The leverage the US has because of China's dependence on US trade and investment is useful in moving China's Communist party towards more liberal policies."

Will Hutton, of the Work Foundation, said: "China's growth has been constructed around an alarming expansion of systematic inequality." He predicted that rising social instability and demands for political reform could derail China's bid for superpower-dom. "Communist China's decade-long development is something of a miracle, but the moment is rapidly approaching when China must break out of the straitjacket of top-down control if it is to maintain economic momentum."

In short, China's medium-term challenge to US dominance can be exaggerated; and the pragmatic Mr Hu, walking on eggshells and seeking a boost before the 2007 party congress, needs a successful summit more than Mr Bush.