Adversary or Partner? Jianhai Bi Assesses Chinese President Hu Jintao's Recent Visit to the United States

By Bi, Jianhai | New Zealand International Review, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Adversary or Partner? Jianhai Bi Assesses Chinese President Hu Jintao's Recent Visit to the United States


Bi, Jianhai, New Zealand International Review


On 18 April 2006 Chinese President Hu Jintao made his first visit to Washington since becoming China's paramount leader in 2002-03. He opened his four-day US visit in Seattle, touring the Microsoft campus and the Boeing factory during his two-day stay there. Then he headed to Washington for a summit with President George W. Bush, focusing on outstanding issues. Finally, he wrapped up his US visit with a foreign policy address at Yale University.

Hu's visit to the United States was scheduled for September last year, but was postponed due to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The rearranged visit was made under delicate circumstances. Domestically, both Hu and Bush had political needs. Although Hu has consolidated his leadership, he needed to strengthen his position. He hoped a high-profile mission to the United States would shore up his standing both within the Communist Party hierarchy and among ordinary Chinese people. In particular, he wanted to ensure stable relations with the United States as he prepared for the Seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007.

Meanwhile, Bush faced the reality, midway through his second term, of becoming a lame-duck president. More unfavorably, the Bush administration had been bogged down in the war in Iraq, becoming increasingly unpopular at home. By February 2006, this war had already cost the lives of 2200 Americans soldiers and wounded more than 15,000. The Iraq War had become longer and bloodier than many American expected. Many congressmen including some Republicans had called for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. Together with the nation's other problems, the war caused Bush's approval ratings to continue to drop. With mid-term elections looming, Bush was eager to regain credibility and prestige through political achievements in either domestic affairs or diplomacy. Hu's visit and further engagement with China were expected to bolster his leadership.

Many problems

Bilaterally, a host of problems made a Sino-American summit timely. The primary US economic concerns were the US trade deficit, China's currency controls, intellectual property rights and China's global hunt for energy. Politically, Bush would raise China's human rights and rising power. According to the Chinese side, the question of Taiwan has always been the most important and sensitive at the heart of China-US relations. Hu expected Bush to offer some assurance that the United States would restrain Taiwan from proceeding down the independence pathway. Of international issues, nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, on which Washington was seeking Beijing's backing for harsher measures, were expected to be on the agenda.

In terms of the protocol of what to call President Hu's visit, the two sides agreed to disagree. Initially, the Chinese side argued that it should be regarded as a full-blown state visit, just like the receptions given Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin before him. However, the American side turned down that idea, considering it as merely a working visit. Eventually the two sides reached a compromise--it would be an official visit despite the differing interpretations by the two sides. To the Chinese it was a state visit, whereas the American insisted that it was not. Normal protocol for visiting heads of state calls for a 21-gun salute, a full military honour guard and a state banquet.

Although Hu received full military honors with a 21-gun salute at his arrival ceremony, he was only accorded a lunch at the White House. By not offering him a state banquet, the Americans underlined the fact that they did not regard his presence as a state visit. This approach demonstrated Bush's dissatisfaction with China's poor human rights record. (1) However, it was also possibly a tactical ploy to pressure China to make a concession on major issues whilst trying, at the same time, to satisfy American hardliners. …

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