President Bush was in China last weekend trying to convince Chinese leaders to do something about the huge $200 billion trade surplus they enjoy with the U.S. Although the Bush visit supplied plenty of happy photo-ops for the media, it failed to generate any progress on the trade front as the Chinese continued to stonewall on this important issue.
The Associated Press commented as follows: "Bush prodded Chinese President Hu Jintao to give U.S. companies better access to China's huge markets, but got no firm commitments for action. He (Bush) also failed to make any headway on human rights and religious freedom."
That echoes a report I heard a couple of weeks ago at a Berkeley meeting of the Foreign Service Association of Northern California, a group of retired diplomats that meets three or four times a year in the Bay Area. The speaker, Robert Wang, who was in charge of economic and trade affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2001 to early this year, pronounced himself "cautiously pessimistic" (although diplomats are usually "cautiously optimistic") on U.S-China trade relations.
Wang, who conducted day-to-day trade negotiations with his Foreign Ministry counterparts, said the Chinese love to sign trade agreements as long as they don't have to do anything that affects their cheap and voluminous exports to the U.S. On occasion, however, when they host a VIP visitor from America, they make alleged trade "concessions."
A clearly frustrated Wang provided a revealing example of how this works: Although Hollywood produces hundreds of movies for export each year, Chinese authorities were permitting the import of only 15 American movies per year. But while planning for the Bush visit, they increased the annual quota for American movies to 20 per year - a 33 percent increase. Aren't you impressed? Me neither.
While Bush was in Beijing, China agreed to buy 70 Boeing 737 airliners, but although both governments hailed this commercial transaction as a major breakthrough on bilateral trade relations, it was nothing of the sort.
Meanwhile, on the human rights front, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained about a crackdown on dissidents preceding the Bush visit and noted that China had failed to follow up on a list of human rights cases that U.S. officials raised when Bush and Hu met at New York in September. Hu subsequently told reporters that China's human rights progress should be judged on "national conditions" and the country's "historical and cultural heritage." Translation: Leave us alone.
Of course Bush and Hu emphasized areas of cooperation, from preventing and controlling Asian bird flu to persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for trade and aid from the U.S. and China. On the other hand, Bush mentioned China's insatiable appetite for oil, which has contributed to higher gas prices in the U.S.
Bush also urged Hu to ease strict currency controls that make American goods more expensive in China and called for a crackdown on counterfeit goods (especially American movies and music CDs) and other violations of international copyright laws, even as Hu assured his high-powered guest that China "is willing to step up its protection for intellectual property rights" and prosecute violators. We'll believe it when we see it, however, because everyone who visits China comments on the widespread availability of counterfeit American DVDs and CDs on the streets of China's big cities.
At the same time, U.S. officials hope that China will help to reinvigorate World Trade Organization free trade talks - the so-called Doha Round - at Hong Kong next month. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman recently visited Beijing in an effort to convince Chinese leaders to support a global free trade agreement that would include debt relief for impoverished African nations and an easing of U.S. and European Union restrictions on agricultural imports from the Third World. An interesting sidelight to these upcoming WTO negotiations is that the U.S. has enlisted Irish rocker-activist Bono of the popular group U2 to promote its global trade agenda.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are keeping a close eye on China's expanding military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon is concerned about a number of geopolitical issues including China's claims on Taiwan and its rivalry with Japan. According to Christian Science Monitor Asia correspondent Robert Marquand, "China's military is beginning to show signs of serious capability as it rises and spends in tandem with its new-wealth economy. As China's submarines and destroyers begin to navigate Pacific Ocean currents, U.S. forces in Asia are becoming more robust and watchful."
"A dawning realization of new Chinese military capability has been so surprising that many analysts warn of overcompensating, and of attributing to China far more threat than there is," Marquand continued. Nevertheless, China's huge and growing army and the 600 to 800 missiles it has aimed at Taiwan are continuing sources of concern for our military planners in the Asia-Pacific region.
All of this means that U.S. diplomats and strategists have their work cut out for them when it comes to trade and military relations with China, the world's next great superpower. By the way, I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving because we Americans have much to be thankful for.
n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.