East meets West

May 01, 2002

WHEN THE PRESUMED next leader of China pays a call on the White House today, East and West ought to proceed on the theory that, for now, less is more - specifically, less tough rhetoric on Taiwan might be best for otherwise improved Sino-U.S. relations.

For Hu Jintao, the Communist Party apparatchik expected to take over its helm this fall and to become China's president spring, this U.S. trip is about seeing and being seen. It gives Mr. Hu his first chance to view America first-hand, which cannot be underestimated. His meetings with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. leaders also give him a certain political imprimatur back home, invaluable as he presumably consolidates power.

But domestic Chinese politics will require Mr. Hu to address U.S. leaders sternly on recent Bush administration efforts to forge much closer U.S.-Taiwanese military ties. How long he talks on Taiwan and the shrillness of his tone will be precisely measured.

For the U.S. side, Mr. Hu's visit provides an opportunity to get a much stronger sense of a relatively young (59) and unknown party operative. Just as important, it's a chance for Mr. Bush to lessen the rising pressures between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. With key administration players enamored of much more hawkish engagement in Asia, Mr. Bush's remarks could turn out to be the real wild card in today's meetings.

Mr. Hu's visit comes as bilateral relations in many ways are in relatively good shape. China's now in the World Trade Organization. Its human rights abuses lately haven't been in the forefront. It has been indirectly aiding the U.S. war on terrorism. It shares similar interests with the United States in the Koreas. And recently, some analysts say, it has taken a more positive line on Taiwan - aiming to absorb the island economically, not conquer it militarily.

At the same time, China has been building up short-range missiles along its coast across from Taiwan - just as there has been a hardening of the U.S. line on Taiwan under Mr. Bush.

The administration has begun stepping up arms sales to Taiwan and deeper military links with the island. And President Bush has made a point of saying the United States would do "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself - a much sharper definition of what had been an intentionally ambiguous position since 1979, when the United States broke formal relations with Taiwan and normalized ties with China.

The result has been the sharpest rise in tensions across the Taiwan Strait since 1995-1996, when the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups there. These days, we're not that far from that sort of face-off - particularly if the administration continues to talk tough today with Mr. Hu.

For the Bush administration, a hawkish stance on Taiwan may be tempting but the island's importance in domestic Chinese politics cannot be overlooked.

Mr. Hu, coming to power amid a high level of domestic unrest in China as a result of economic reforms, cannot afford to appear weak at home in dealing with the United States - particularly as he seeks to build political support within the military. A sharp response from Mr. Bush today would more likely box in Mr. Hu rather than nudge him toward peaceful reconciliation of the Chinese problem across the Taiwan Strait.

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