Highly public meetings between heads of state, like the meeting in the White House on Thursday between President Bush and Chinese president Hu Jintao, are “90 percent political theater and about 10 percent substance,” says Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. But symbolic or theatrical gestures can offer insights into what is really happening, so it might be worthwhile to observe them.
Fortunately, despite efforts by some in both countries, the United States and China now have a relatively stable relationship. Each would like certain things from the other, but none is of such significance as to destroy a relationship that may be more correct than warm.
The background to mutual tolerance, of course, has been China’s phenomenal economic growth since adopting more market-oriented economic policies in the 1980s, making it now the U.S.’ third-largest trading partner and the world’s second largest recipient of foreign direct investment.
Some would make much of the fact that the U.S. imports more goods from China than it exports there, but this “deficit” has little if any real economic significance. Despite cultural and political barriers, U.S. firms are making money in China and see the potential for more. Both nations have an interest in their both having healthy economies.
While China’s economy may be freer of bureaucratic control than ours, politically China is still officially communist and in practice rigidly authoritarian. It still imprisons political and religious dissenters from the official line. It is worthwhile to prod it on human-rights issues, but real change must come from within, as a growing middle class looks beyond consumer goods to demand more political freedom.
What do the two leaders want?
China’s Hu wants to be seen as unthreatening (warm and fuzzy is not an option) and the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship as mutually beneficial, which is one reason he began his visit in Seattle, with Microsoft’s Bill Gates and officials of The Boeing Co. He doesn’t want to be prodded into more than token gestures on political or religious prisoners. He would like President Bush to admonish Taiwan not to shake up the delicate status quo by moving toward overt independence. He would prefer little or no pressure to be helpful in the campaign to make sure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons, because China’s economic resurgence is fueled so much by Iranian oil.
President Bush, on the other hand, wants Chinese help in pressuring Iran, perhaps a commitment not to veto a sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council. He wants more help in dealing with North Korea. He would like a crackdown on Chinese theft of intellectual property and at least a few releases of political prisoners.
Neither leader is likely to give more than token concessions. But it’s useful to talk with the emerging superpower, even if the only real gain is the release of a few political prisoners in China.