On the surface, the White House visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday was a celebration of improving Sino-U.S. ties. But the subtext was the future -- and how these two countries will share the international stage.
At every turn, Hu sought to stress the equality between the two nations, which, as he put it in a luncheon toast, are the "largest developing country and the largest developed country." Speaking to reporters after his meeting with President Bush, he said an "important agreement" was reached: "Under the new circumstance, given the international situation here, that China and the United States share extensive, common strategic interests."
For his part, Bush tried to signal that China is not all that equal. The White House would not grant Hu the state dinner he dearly wanted, offering instead a lunch that fell just short of the pomp and circumstance for close allies. Meeting with reporters, Bush simply said, "It's a very important relationship."
How the relationship evolves from this point is unclear. China's foreign policy now is influenced mainly by domestic considerations, especially its desperate need for energy and materials. Although the Bush administration has been distracted by the war against terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, the Chinese have forged trade links around the world, even in South America, supposedly U.S. turf.
This trade has begun to give the Chinese enormous influence in many parts of the world, especially Southeast Asia. In the past year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has sought to counter that influence, pursuing for instance a nuclear agreement with India that could result in much closer links with New Delhi, long a rival of China. Administration officials insist that they are not trying to box China in, but want it to use its growing influence in productive, non-threatening ways.
In the view of administration officials, China's rise will always be tempered by its poor human-rights record and the Communist Party's unwillingness to release its grip on political power.
Yet any notion that the two countries are fierce rivals is belied by the corporate executives who were invited to the lunch at the White House, including the chiefs of Cisco Systems, International Paper, Amway, Lucent Technologies, Cargill, Caterpillar and Motorola. An additional 900 people attended a dinner in Hu's honor last night held by the U.S.-China Business Council.
The contrasting ideas about the modern U.S.-China relationship were reflected in how the two leaders used language yesterday, including the word "stakeholder." Words are very important to the Chinese government -- much of Bush's conversation with Hu consisted of reciting stock phrases on such issues such as Taiwan, an aide said -- and nuance usually has a purpose and design.
Greeting Hu on the White House lawn, Bush said, "As stakeholders in the international system, our two nations share many strategic interests."
Bush's use of the word "stakeholder" was deliberate. For the past six months, the administration -- especially Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick -- has urged China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, meaning that it shed its habit of looking at the world through its narrow commercial interests and instead take a broader view. In particular, U.S. officials want China to curtail its dealings with countries such as Iran and Sudan as a way to alter the behavior of those countries.
At the luncheon, Hu also mentioned the concept of the stakeholder, but he framed it differently, again appearing to place China on an equal level with the United States. "China and the United States are not only stakeholders, but they should also be constructive partners -- be parties of constructive cooperation."
A key test of that partnership will be how China reacts to U.S. efforts to counter the development of Iran's nuclear program -- and whether it can force its patron North Korea to return to six-nation talks on ending its nuclear ambitions. Hu suggested China wants to work with the Bush administration on those issues, but he also urged "flexibility" on North Korea -- Chinese code for the desire that the United States make concessions.