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The China Syndrome

George W. Bush's meeting with China's Hu Jintao makes one wonder if the bureaucracy has seized control of China policy from a preoccupied president.

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2003 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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PRESIDENT BUSH has had an impressive and successful trip to Europe and the Middle East. But the president's June 1 meeting with President Hu Jintao of China, as described in an unnamed senior administration official's "background" briefing, makes one wonder if the bureaucracy has seized control of China policy from a preoccupied president, vice president and national security adviser. (The entire briefing is available at the White House website). Here are the highlights:

Human Rights. The president apparently did not devote much, if any, time to discussing China's human rights abuses during the meeting with President Hu. In response to questions about Tibet, Falun Gong and human rights generally, the briefer mentioned only Tibet--and then only to say "the issue didn't come up directly because we have been raising it with the Chinese already."

Non-proliferation. President Bush apparently discussed Iran with President Hu without mentioning the sanctions the U.S. imposed in late May on NORINCO, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate that aided the Iranian government agency that develops and manufactures ballistic missiles. "There was no specific mention of the NORINCO sanctions. The president did bring up his concerns about Iran, stating very clearly that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons presents a grave threat that China and the U.S. have to work together to address." At which point a journalist asked "Was there any response from President Hu on that?" Answer: "Not much, really."

North Korea. The president apparently did not forcefully urge the Chinese to put economic pressure on the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear program. "The conversation did not go as far as economic sanctions." Instead, President Bush "believes and continues to say to the Chinese that we think you have a lot of influence over North Korea. . . . President Hu did not respond one way or the other."

SARS. Mr. Bush "specifically praised" President Hu's handling of the SARS outbreak and President Hu's "willingness to become transparent on the issue." This lets China off the hook far too easily for a cover-up that has cost lives around the world.

Taiwan. Most important, perhaps, the president appears to have stepped back from his earlier robust support for democratic Taiwan. The briefer says the president told Hu Jintao "we don't support independence" for Taiwan. Such a statement recalls President Clinton's 1998 China trip when Mr. Clinton publicly moved the U.S. closer than ever before toward China's position on Taiwan. Previously, the Bush Administration had seemed to reject the Clinton position, which seemed to rule out Taiwan existing separately from China. At the very least, the United States should say that future relations between Taiwan and China should be determined by the people of China and Taiwan. This has been said many times in the past. There should be no question about Washington's determination to allow the democratic people of Taiwan to choose their own future.

Finally, the briefer stated that the U.S. will "help Taiwan to the extent possible defend itself." This is a weakening of the president's previous pledge in 2001 to do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," and sends a dangerous signal to Beijing.

No doubt some senior administration officials believe that the new Chinese leadership presents an opportunity to move U.S.-China relations in a more positive direction. Whether or not that is a realistic expectation given the fact that China remains a one-party dictatorship, it is certainly true that real progress in U.S.-China relations is unlikely if the president is less than forceful and candid with his Chinese counterpart on issues of importance to the United States.

It is time for senior officials to re-engage seriously on China policy, lest progress toward the defense of American interests and principles in the Middle East be accompanied by a dangerous retreat in East Asia.

From a Project for the New American Century memorandum.