By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006
When President Bush sits down with Chinese President Hu Jintao this morning in the Oval Office, some of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the United States will be on the table, including the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Increasingly, administration officials believe, the key to these issues and other overseas problems may lie in Beijing, a reflection of the pivotal position China has come to play on the international stage.
China, consumed with domestic problems at home and eager for stability overseas, has long resisted playing a leading role in foreign policy. But, especially in the past year, the Bush administration has pressed China to shed its traditional neutrality and take a more aggressive stance against governments that U.S. officials believe could potentially threaten U.S. interests and, more broadly, the international system.
"In both Iran and North Korea, China has a very serious role to play, and in some ways is the pivot for whether we're successful in dealing with those problems," said Michael J. Green, until December senior director for Asia policy at the White House and now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Hu will be under some pressure to say something and to signal, not only domestically here but to those countries, that China's patience is wearing thin."
Besides providing help on Iran and North Korea, China could assist in a range of other administration priorities, including ending the deadly conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and putting pressure on the military dictatorship in Burma. But Chinese support for U.S. goals has thus far fallen short of the administration's expectations, in part because China's urgent energy needs have often trumped any concerns about the unsavory nature of other governments.
"While they recognize they are a growing international force, I believe the Chinese of today are pretty absorbed with their domestic development," Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, the administration's point person on China, told a small group of reporters last week. "Will the China of 10 to 15 years from now have a similar view? I can't say."
China's foreign policy has traditionally stressed maintaining the status quo. But in recent months, administration officials have begun to emphasize to the Chinese that with greater economic power comes greater international responsibility. Zoellick, in a major speech last September, said that though the United States had once tried to rein in the Soviet Union, it now wanted to draw out China and integrate it into the international system.
China, Zoellick said, should become a "responsible stakeholder," willing to tackle broad international concerns as any great power would.
Zoellick's phrase at first thoroughly confused the Chinese leadership because it could not be easily translated into Chinese. Officials nervously approached White House officials to understand whether Zoellick's speech was positive or negative, U.S. officials said. The Chinese now appear to realize that Zoellick's speech was intended to be positive -- but with an edge.
"They finally understand what Zoellick was getting at, and that it is the new benchmark for the relationship" said David L. Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. "Sitting on the fence will be judged negatively by the United States."
The Chinese have made it clear that "this is their most important foreign policy relationship," a senior U.S. official said. Administration officials hope to exploit that sentiment as they try to prod China to work with the United States on a range of issues.
Hu, who toured a Boeing Co. aircraft plant yesterday in Everett, Wash., will be greeted with a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn this morning and feted by Bush at a lunch for 200 guests. When he arrived in Seattle on Tuesday, Hu said China and the United States "share common strategic interests in a wide range of areas, particularly in maintaining world peace, promoting global economic growth, combating terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
In the case of Iran, China has frequently joined with Russia to thwart the tougher action sought by the United States at the United Nations. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, standing on the same stage as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a news conference in Berlin, rejected the idea of sanctions last month, saying that "there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East."
The U.N. Security Council demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities by April 28, and instead Iran's president announced last week that the Islamic republic had reached a new technological milestone. Talks held in Moscow this week by diplomats for the permanent members of the council and Germany yielded no consensus on the next steps.
The U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the discussions today will be an "opportune moment" for the two presidents to discuss Iran, with Bush planning to outline to Hu how he hopes to proceed against Tehran. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Bush stressed that "we want to solve this issue diplomatically," but he pointedly refused to rule out using nuclear weapons to destroy underground Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy failed.
In his talks with the Chinese, Zoellick has suggested that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon would destabilize the Middle East and would probably raise the cost of crude oil, directly affecting Chinese interests. Chinese officials privately told Zoellick in January that they share with the United States the same principles on Iran but that they may differ on tactics. Now, U.S. officials are hoping that Hu will publicly declare this week that China wants to work cooperatively with the United States to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
On North Korea, China remains Pyongyang's key economic and political patron and has played a crucial role in hosting six-nation talks to resolve the impasse over that country's nuclear programs. But the talks have stalled, and U.S. officials have felt frustrated that China has been reluctant to use its leverage to force North Korea to return to the talks. Generally, China -- concerned about the potential collapse of North Korea -- has enticed Pyongyang with inducements, such as a new glass factory, rejecting U.S. efforts to cut off oil supplies or take other negative measures.
"What we are urging the Chinese to recognize is that they need to be more than a mediator" on North Korea, Zoellick said at a public forum on Monday.
Hu is very formal, but U.S. officials hope to build on his personal relationship with Bush.
In April 2003, shortly after Hu ascended to the top post, Bush ended a phone conversation by telling him he was a strong leader and doing a good job. It was one of Bush's standard lines -- later made famous when he used it to laud one of his top aides after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But White House officials were later told by Chinese officials that Bush's comment made a deep impression on Hu, who had never heard such praise from a world leader.
Hu, White House officials were told, decided that Bush really wants him to succeed.