Washington gets look at rising Chinese leader

Hu warns that Taiwan could prove to be key to two countries' relations

May 02, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hu Jintao, an enigmatic figure who is in line to be China's next president, warned last night that a confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, more than any other issue, could mar relations between Washington and Beijing.

"If any trouble occurs on the Taiwan question, it would be difficult for China-U.S. relations to move forward, and a retrogression may even occur," Hu said in a speech shortly after meeting with President Bush at the White House.

He added, "The question of Taiwan is China's internal matter and should be resolved by the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits."

The 59-year-old Chinese vice president delivered his speech at a Washington hotel after two days of meetings with Bush and other top U.S. officials.

On what is believed to be his first visit to the United States, Hu covered a range of topics in his meeting with Bush. Besides their tense differences yesterday over Taiwan, the two men discussed international trade, U.S. complaints over Beijing's human rights record and China's role in the war on terrorism, U.S. officials said.

Hu largely reiterated long-standing Chinese positions and kept any personal vision of China's future to himself. The visit served mostly to extend courtesies to the man who will soon likely lead the world's most populous nation.

Officials said Bush wanted to stress to Hu the American view that there should be a peaceful resolution to conflicts between China and Taiwan, that there should be no provocation on either side of the Taiwan Straits and that Washington would continue its "one China" policy.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province that belongs to the mainland and has threatened to attack if Taiwan ever declared independence.

The Bush administration has rankled Chinese leaders by offering to sell arms to the Taiwanese.

China also was irritated when the administration recently approved a visa for a top defense official from Taiwan to attend a conference in Florida and meet with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

Expect `disagreements'

Bush and Hu Jintao (pronounced who-gint-OW) spoke for about 30 minutes, after the Chinese vice president met with Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials. As he left the White House, Hu declined to speak to a group of reporters, waving as he entered his car and saying only that he had had a "good" discussion.

"The president expressed his belief that the United States and China can work well together," Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said of the president's meeting in the Oval Office yesterday. Fleischer added that the president told Hu to expect "some disagreements" between their nations.

Chinese scholars said the visit gave Bush, Cheney and other top administration officials a chance to meet face-to-face with the man who is expected to take over as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall and to succeed Jiang Zemin as president next year.

Eager to court the rising leader, the Bush administration threw out the red carpet in ways it seldom does even for heads of state.

Hu met for an hour with Cheney, was the guest of honor at a luncheon at the vice president's residence and then met with Bush at the White House.

On Tuesday, Hu spoke with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and had dinner with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Hu, who is making his first extensive visits abroad, has received similarly warm receptions elsewhere. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sat down with him, and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain held a meeting with Hu at Buckingham Palace.

"Vice President Hu is part of a new generation of Chinese leaders coming up through the ranks," one senior White House aide said yesterday.

"What we are trying to do here is make a connection with the top of the Chinese leadership," said James Lilley, who served as ambassador to China under President George H.W. Bush. "This is the overwhelming aspect of the visit. It may seem trivial, irrelevant, maybe a waste of time and money. But really, it is essential to establish a relationship."

Lilley said that Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and the elder Bush, as well as their top aides, worked hard to form a "chemistry" with Chinese leaders.

"The relationship was imperfect, and sometimes rocky," he said. "But the strategic framework was set, and the personalities connected. This kind of relationship gets you through the rocky times."

The U.S.-China connection has been anything but smooth recently. In addition to Bush's perceived support for Taiwan, U.S. and Chinese officials are still repairing the rift resulting from last spring's collision between a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet, the first foreign policy challenge Bush faced as president.

Letters refused

U.S. officials also remain skeptical that China is on the road to improving its human rights record or allowing its citizens more religious freedoms.

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