Bush's Man in Beijing; in a Canny Move, the President Entrusted Zoellick with the Crucial China Mission

By Glain, Stephen | Newsweek International, August 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Bush's Man in Beijing; in a Canny Move, the President Entrusted Zoellick with the Crucial China Mission


Glain, Stephen, Newsweek International


Byline: Stephen Glain

The Bush Administration's point man on China is Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a fierce and sometimes combative moderate who was handed the job largely by default. Last week in Beijing he wrapped up the first round of a bilateral dialogue that puts him in the driver's seat of one of Washington's most crucial relationships. But Zoellick has the backing of George Bush, a fellow pragmatist--at least on China--who kids Zoellick for being something of a nerd.

Zoellick can be as imperious as he is intelligent and bookish. His appointment in January by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was applauded by foreign-policy realists as a counterweight to the White House ideologues. With the rest of the President's inner circle focused on the war in Iraq, Zoellick has made several trips to Asia during the last several months, where his aggressive engagement of China and pro-free-trade gospel jars with an increasingly protectionist Congress. Just last week, as Zoellick assured his hosts in Beijing that Washington was eager to strengthen U.S. -China ties, Chinese energy giant Cnooc withdrew its bid for California-based Unocal Corp. under pressure from lawmakers, which cast Cnooc's move as a plot to corner precious U.S. energy resources. Never mind that Unocal's oil and gas assets account for little more than 1 percent of U.S. reserves; the congressional attack was a clear signal of battles to come. "This is the first phase of what will be a prolonged war," says Jeffrey Bader, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution and a close adviser to Zoellick. "Zoellick is an intellectual firepower but he's hard-nosed. You'll see him manage the U.S.-China relationship so it doesn't go over the cliff."

Colleagues say Zoellick frequently attends cabinet meetings in Rice's place and is known to defend his moderate and nuanced views on China against administration hawks respectfully but forcefully. It was Zoellick who pushed the White House to commit larger packages of aid and generous trade concessions for tsunami-afflicted Southeast Asia in December, his colleagues say, and he is credited with preventing a trade war with China last year over Beijing's alleged unfair subsidies of state-owned firms. The bow-tied and pedantic Zoellick offers a stark contrast to the anti-intellectual Bush, who occasionally ribs Zoellick for his mastery of wonkish detail. "Bush regards Bob as kind of a geek," says a former colleague of Zoellick's. "But they respect each other." (Zoellick declined requests for an interview.)

They are also in tune geopolitically. For all his Wilsonian pretensions, George Bush has faithfully preserved the doctrine of engagement with authoritarian China as applied by his predecessors. Under Bush, the White House has kept commercial rows with China from erupting into the kind of public rancor that characterized similar disputes between the United States and Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s. Last month the White House outmaneuvered congressional calls for punitive tariffs on China-made goods in response to Chinese currency manipulation by persuading Beijing to declare a revaluation. In late 2003, Bush openly admonished Taiwan against declaring independence from China, which regards the island state as a renegade province, in one of the sternest such warnings from a U.S. president. While Bush has publicly welcomed human-rights activists from such countries as North Korea, he has carefully avoided hosting dissidents from China. "For whatever reason, Bush is a pragmatist when it comes to China," says Banning Garrett, director of Asia programs at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

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