How will Hu change China's foreign policy?

September 29, 2004|By Richard Halloran

THE ASCENT OF Hu Jintao to the third of the top three posts in China's hierarchy will most likely cause subtle changes in Beijing's relations with the United States and with its neighbors in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia -- but not on the sensitive issue of Taiwan.

In China, political power rests on three pillars: the Communist Party of China (CPC), the government bureaucracy and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). On Sept. 19, Mr. Hu was named chairman of China's Central Military Commission and, in effect, commander of 2 million men and women in the world's largest military force.

Mr. Hu became general secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, the most important of the three posts, in November 2002, and president of China and head of the government bureaucracy in March 2003. In each case, he succeeded Jiang Zemin, who appears to have let loose of all but the last strings of power.

Part of the coming changes will be in style as Mr. Hu is regarded as a reserved, even self-effacing, technocrat in contrast to the abrasive and sometimes pompous Mr. Jiang. Mr. Hu is an engineer who has climbed the political ladder by sticking to the party line, avoiding controversy and keeping his own counsel.

Those who look to Mr. Hu for political reform will probably be disappointed.

He was ruthless in suppressing Tibetans seeking autonomy and religious freedom while he headed the party apparatus there from 1988 to 1992. In recent speeches, Mr. Hu has scorned Western democracy as a "blind alley" that would lead China to a "dead end."

And recently, Mr. Hu affirmed his belief in the authority of the Communist Party when he lauded "a great solidarity among all political parties, communities, ethnic groups, social groups and all China-loving people under the leadership of the CPC."

Moreover, Mr. Hu is confronted by enormous domestic problems, including 40 percent unemployment and underemployment, an inadequate system of health care, rampant pollution, a corrupt banking system, inefficient state-owned enterprises and uncertain supplies of energy and raw materials for China's growing economy.

Thus, Mr. Hu may not be so confrontational as Mr. Jiang toward America, particularly when China enjoys a $152.4 billion export market in the United States, by far China's largest. Moreover, the United States, along with Japan and Taiwan, are major sources of foreign direct investment in China, providing technology and jobs.

Even so, Mr. Hu evinces the fear of many Chinese leaders that the United States is forging an "arc of containment" around China. A scholar at the Singapore Institute for International Affairs, Eric Teo, wrote recently: "Beijing is always concerned that Washington could build an anti-China coalition around its periphery."

Mr. Hu and the United States, however, will continue to make common cause in seeking to dissuade North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Mr. Hu will likely be tougher on North Korea than was Mr. Jiang because he is more pragmatic and less ideological and wants to preclude Pyongyang from selling nuclear arms and missiles to other rogue nations or terrorists.

With South Korea, Mr. Hu will continue the effort to wean Seoul away from its alliance with the United States and to coax the South Koreans into submissive relations with Beijing like those of China's dynastic days. China has asserted that the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo was actually part of China, a claim that has angered Koreans.

Mr. Hu's approach to Japan will apparently differ from that of Mr. Jiang, who stirred animosity during his visit to Tokyo in 1998 by accusing Japan of failing to acknowledge its responsibilities for World War II. In contrast, Mr. Hu met last week in Beijing with Yohei Kono, speaker of the Japanese Diet's lower house, and sought to encourage good relations with a Japan that is becoming more assertive.

Mr. Hu will continue Beijing's policy of seeking to entice Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations into a Chinese orbit. "China has discreetly challenged U.S. presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region," Mr. Teo wrote, "putting forward Beijing's own vision of Asian regionalism."

On Taiwan, Mr. Hu shares the views of Mr. Jiang that Taiwan belongs to China and China will use military force to conquer the island if people there do not submit. In Mr. Hu's presence last week, Mr. Jiang said he preferred "peaceful reunification" but that "we shall by no means make the commitment to forsake the use of force. This is a major political principle."

There is no reason to believe that Mr. Hu disagreed.

Richard Halloran is a journalist and expert on Asian issues. He is based in Honolulu.

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