Meeting With U.S. Campaign Aides Shows China's Interest in the Race

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

One of China's top government officials reached out to the leading U.S. presidential contenders last week, holding an unpublicized meeting with several of their top foreign policy advisers during a visit to Washington for high-level talks with Bush administration officials.

Among those present for the dinner with Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo on June 19, according to people familiar with the encounter, were top advisers to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).

The meeting underscored the intense interest in the U.S. presidential campaign among foreign leaders, particularly in China, which has historically been uneasy about transitions in the White House. China is especially nervous about rising complaints from U.S. politicians over the handling of its economy, as well as criticism of its role in protecting the Sudanese government from international sanctions for its role in the atrocities in Darfur.

"The Chinese are trying to figure out how to affect domestic U.S. politics," said Michael J. Green, a former adviser on Asia to President Bush. "They know that changes in U.S. government lead to different China policies that are uncomfortable for them."

Dai, considered one of the major figures in the Chinese foreign policy establishment, was in Washington for the fourth meeting of what has become known as the U.S.-China Senior Dialogue, a regular channel for discussions aimed at drawing the two countries closer. Among the issues discussed in the meetings hosted by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte were nuclear activities in North Korea and Iran, global warming and Darfur, according to a statement from the State Department. Dai also met separately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

The meeting with the campaign advisers was arranged by John J. Hamre, a deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration and the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Through a spokesman, Hamre declined to discuss the private session, and others disclosed details only on the condition of anonymity. Also leading the discussion were Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Reagan defense secretary Frank C. Carlucci.

Others present for the dinner meeting at the Metropolitan Club included former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith, representing the Clinton campaign; former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, representing Obama; former State Department official Derek Chollet, representing Edwards; former State Department policy planning chief Mitchell B. Reiss, representing Romney; McCain's national security adviser Randy Scheunemann; and Antony J. Blinken, staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an adviser to Biden. The campaign of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani reportedly was invited to send a participant but did not do so.

The meeting appears to have taken place at the behest of the Chinese. "They have felt over the decades that they have been caught by surprise by American elections -- and that they should get involved earlier in trying to figure out where the new administration might head," said James Mann, the author of several books on U.S.-China relations. Mann said it appeared the Chinese were getting involved early in the U.S. political cycle, "trying to get out their views and to preemptively deflect criticism."

By several accounts, the meeting was generally cordial, with Dai listing many areas of potential cooperation and warning the participants that they should not rock the boat on the status of Taiwan, which remains of paramount concern to Beijing.

Wary about pressure from U.S. politicians for China to ease controls on the fluctuation of its currency, Dai made a case for the benefits of expanding economic ties between the two countries, the sources said.

Dai also told the small group that China was interested in helping to stop the violence in Darfur but added that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing should not be held hostage to the issue. Some of the presidential contenders, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), have suggested that the U.S. consider boycotting the Games if China does not do more to pressure Khartoum over the issue.

In discussing Darfur, several sources said, Dai displayed something of a heavy hand, saying that in the recent French elections, the two candidates who advocated tougher action on Darfur lost. That struck some participants as strange, because the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made more vigorous international action on Darfur a key part of his foreign policy agenda.

Policy toward China has not emerged as a major issue in the early going of the 2008 campaign, though a number of candidates have focused on the rising impact of China's economy on the United States. Dai seemed curious about whether that would change, one participant said. He was told by several people that there would be a greater focus on China by the next president.

"What came out of it was a pretty strong consensus that, no matter who was elected president, there was likely to be a much more sustained high-level engagement with China," said one person present.

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company