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China Leader's Trip May Hit Head Winds

Instead of strengthening U.S. ties, President Hu Jintao will probably be doing damage control.

April 17, 2006|Paul Richter and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Chinese President Hu Jintao intended this week's scheduled trip to the United States as a way to build his personal prestige and show off the strength of U.S.-Chinese ties. Instead, it is becoming a mission to prevent Washington from turning tough on his government.

U.S. lawmakers and some Bush administration officials want more cooperation from China on a range of issues. They complain that Beijing has blocked American efforts to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions; has done too little to deal with North Korea's nuclear program; and has failed to act on key economic issues such as reducing the $200-billion bilateral trade imbalance, revaluing its currency and halting intellectual property theft.

Congress is threatening protectionist legislation, and the administration is considering a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization. Although President Bush says he is committed to strengthening ties, he is under domestic pressure and is making it clear that he too believes Beijing must do more.

"We expect China to live up to its commitments," Bush said at a small business conference last week.

Hu's first presidential visit to the U.S. was designed to strengthen ties, but "the risk is that it will rebound in the other direction," said C. Fred Bergsten, a former Treasury Department official.

"The failure to get progress on the economic issues may undermine the overall relationship and then make it harder to work together on the security concerns," Bergsten, now director of the Institute for International Economics, said at a meeting last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Hu is scheduled to arrive Tuesday in Seattle, visit the White House on Thursday and speak at Yale University on Friday.

Most analysts say major progress on economic issues is unlikely, but the Chinese have been doing what they can to sweeten the atmosphere.

In recent days, a delegation headed by Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi has gone on a buying spree in the United States, announcing $16 billion in contracts for Boeing aircraft and a range of other U.S. products. Chinese officials have promised to resume buying U.S. beef, enforce piracy rules and buy more legal U.S. software.

The deals have been aimed at trying to mute criticism from Congress, which represents the most urgent threat to China.

Jing Huang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the Chinese were splurging on chicken from the U.S. even though China is the world's largest chicken exporter and has all the poultry it needs.

"They're trying to calm down the Congress," Huang said at a Brookings conference. "They know the midterm elections are coming, and they don't want China to become a negative issue."

Even with such efforts, Hu's reception is expected to be lukewarm at best. With Hu eager to show his domestic audience that he rates the treatment given to top world leaders, the Chinese have been referring to the meeting as a "state visit." But the White House, careful not to show too much deference, says it is not. White House officials have decided on a slightly lower level of protocol, offering a formal lunch rather than a state dinner.

During his three years as president, Hu, 63, has taken a hard-line line stance toward the media, human rights activists, Internet essayists and other critics of the regime. At the same time, he has sought to improve conditions for the 700 million farmers and rural poor left behind as China grows more prosperous.

Congress will be in recess during Hu's visit, reducing the chance of embarrassing criticism. But lawmakers have signaled their intention to get tougher. A bill cosponsored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would penalize countries that have currencies out of line with the U.S. dollar. China is widely accused of holding down the value of its currency to lower the prices of its exports.

"There is a very real sense among Americans that our trading partners -- China in particular -- do not play by the rules," Baucus said last month in introducing the bill, which is thought to have a good chance of passage.

The Chinese have depended on administration officials to temper Congress. But now they are aware that Bush, with his approval ratings at all-time lows, may be too weak to restrain a worried Republican majority, analysts say.

"They are astute observers of the executive branch ... and they know that the president is weakened," said Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was the Pentagon's top official for Asia under President Clinton.

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