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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Hu sends a message to the world that China is under new management

HONG KONG -- Chinese President Hu Jintao's first overseas journey has served to reassure the international community that China's new leadership has a steady hand on the nation's helm and can be counted on as a constructive partner in such problem areas as terrorism, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the situation in postwar Iraq.

China's new leader, as expected, did not embark on any new policy directions, sticking to positions that had been forged over the last 13 years by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. However, Hu took pains to emphasize that there was now a new team in charge.

On several occasions, he went out of his way to assert his personal views as well as the position of the new leadership of which he is the head. For example, when meeting with President Jacques Chirac of France, Hu said "the new Chinese leadership attaches great importance to developing" an all round partnership with France, rather than saying that China attaches great importance to this.

Similarly, while meeting Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, Hu declared that "the new central leadership in China" attaches great importance to friendly relations and cooperation with Malaysia.

These are small signs, to be sure, but they suggest that Hu wants the world to know that China is under new management. It would have been just as easy for him to say that China has always attached importance to Malaysia. But putting it the way he did indicates that Hu reserves the right to pick and choose which policies to continue and which ones to change.

So far, of course, the major policies remain unchanged. It is interesting that Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, in briefing correspondents traveling with the Chinese leader after his return to China, spoke about important aspects of the trip, one of which was that it had "showcased the image of China's new leadership."

Hu clearly struck a responsive chord with many of his interlocutors. Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from his meeting with his Chinese counterpart by saying relations between their two countries are at "an unprecedented high level."

In reasserting their support for a multipolar world order, both presidents made it clear that they don't want to see a world dominated by the United States. However, both are pragmatic enough to realize that they have to cooperate with Washington when it suits their interests.

Thus, in his meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, Hu signaled his willingness to continue to cooperate in the war against terrorism and on the North Korean nuclear issue.

On the latter issue, some slight progress appears to have been made, with the Chinese leader passing on North Korea's request for a "bilateral conversation" with the U.S. -- as distinct from bilateral talks -- and the American president insisting on a multilateral format. However, the U.S. agreed that there could be some sort of "bilateral contact" within a multilateral format.

Hu clearly did not want to provoke the U.S. Thus, he did not raise thorny issues, such as the recent American decision to impose sanctions on the Chinese company Norinco, ostensibly for violating nonproliferation guidelines vis-a-vis Iran. However, Hu did assert that China had already put in place a comprehensive system of export controls -- although the U.S. clearly feels that the system needs to be improved.

When Bush brought up his concerns about Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Hu was noncommittal. Similarly, when Bush urged China to use its influence over North Korea, Hu again chose not to respond one way or the other.

This suggests that China did not see eye to eye on these issues with the U.S., but Hu was unwilling to emphasize their differences, choosing instead to talk about things that they agreed on.

This difference in approach is reflected in the way the two countries characterized their relationship. The Chinese describe the bilateral relationship as constructive and cooperative. The U.S., however, says that the goal is a relationship that is "candid, constructive and cooperative."

Clearly, the American willingness to be candid about differences with China isn't something that Chinese leaders appreciate. China prefers to send such messages to the U.S. indirectly, as when Hu and Putin both called for a multipolar world order.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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