Chinese President Hu Jintao did not meet with President George W. Bush at the White House last week, but will later, “on the margins” of the U.N. General Assembly session. The delay and change of venue was dictated by the Katrina recovery effort, but was also fortunate for the Bush administration. Beijing had been waging a global media campaign to portray the summit as Washington’s acceptance of “a rising China” and a rejection of the “China threat” theory prevalent in the Pentagon, Congress, and conservative think tanks. With the U.S. focused on Iraq, and the administration’s poll numbers down, Beijing hoped that Bush would want a high-profile “feel good” meeting that would paper over the many challenges that China is posing to American interests. The downgrading of the Bush-Hu meeting helps the U.S. avoid this Chinese diplomatic trap.
Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint, with China’s military buildup continuing and talk from Beijing about the possible use of nuclear weapons to deter any interference with a conquest of the de facto independent island. A new round of talks on North Korea’s nuclear program is expected to start shortly, and Beijing is still using endless discussions to prevent any action being taken against the Pyongyang regime. In Iran, China is also helping Tehran resist international pressure, using trade and investment to undermine any U.S. or European sanctions. Beijing has made it clear it will block attempts to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear activities.
On September 1, China released a new white paper on disarmament and nonproliferation to blunt criticism during the expected summit. But even in a paper filled with propaganda platitudes, Beijing could not abandon the party line that undergirds its position on North Korea and Iran: “The issue of non-proliferation should be dealt with by political and diplomatic means within the framework of international law. . . . The legitimate rights and interests of all countries as regards the peaceful use of science and technology should be guaranteed.”
As international law, the paper cites U.N. Resolution 1540, which was introduced by the U.S. in 2003 to give legitimacy to the campaign of the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative to shut down the global movement of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. Beijing, however, led the successful effort to gut the measure before its unanimous adoption last year. The operative sections now refer to non-state actors and the enforcement of domestic controls on individuals and industry. It thus treats proliferation as a matter of illicit private activity, rather than state policy, thus avoiding any foundation for the imposition of international sanctions.
Last July, Hu delivered a major address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kazakhstan stressing China’s role in Central Asia’s stability and development. Stability means supporting dictatorships like Uzbekistan’s, which has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Development means shipping the region’s oil and natural gas directly to China rather than selling in on the world market. In August, Russia and China held their first joint military exercise involving 10,000 Chinese troops with Russian strategic bombers. Part of the exercise involved resisting interference in local affairs by a “third force”–a clear reference to the United States.
President Hu has placed fresh emphasis on combat readiness and the ability to win a war “under new conditions.” He has championed major increases in military spending, concentrated on naval, air, and missile programs oriented toward the Pacific. While reformist Deng Xiaoping had given economic development priority over military expansion, Hu has taken a step back toward a more hard-line view of the world. He is impatient to convert China’s economic growth into power projection.
While Beijing understands the unity of wealth and power in world affairs, it hopes that U.S. policy-makers will continue to treat trade issues separately from security issues. This is also the view of those American corporations whose investments in China make them Beijing’s most powerful lobby in Washington. But it would be a fundamental mistake for the Bush administration to ignore how U.S.-China trade and investment flows are helping to provide Beijing with the means to pursue strategic ambitions that run contrary to American interests.
How to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China, which may top $220 billion this year, will be a topic at the meeting. At an August 30 press conference, He Yafei, director-general of China’s department of North American affairs, said, “We are willing to import more U.S. goods.” But then he quickly added the standard Beijing line: “We hope the United States will ease curbs on exports to China, especially curbs on high-tech goods.” Those restrictions are on technologies with military applications. China is not interested in importing consumer goods. They only need two things: advanced technology and the capital to further expand their industrial base. While China continues to push exports, it is also investing in import-substitution sectors and the purchase of foreign sources of energy and raw materials (including American holdings).
Though diplomatic and military flashpoints attract the most attention, the most important impact on the balance of power comes from shifts in economic patterns during peacetime. The 2005 Department of Defense report on “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” cites Beijing’s growing need for foreign sources of metals and fossil fuels as a “driver of strategy,” noting that these account for 60 percent of China’s imports. It is pushing China into closer ties with a variety of unsavory but resource-rich regimes. It is also highlighting the myriad ways that U.S. and Chinese interests are in conflict around the world.
In his global travels, Hu has been exuding confidence in his country’s rise. If President Bush validates that claim by making a public show of accommodating China’s views on major issues, it would weaken American influence around the world. The New York meeting should be polite but low-key, and avoid any grandiose claims. The Bush administration needs to formulate a strategy to deal with emerging threats rather than perform in Beijing’s public-relations show.
–William Hawkins is senior fellow for national-security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington, D.C.