Less than five months into his presidency, Chinese leader Hu Jintao is playing an active role on the international stage. With North Korea threatening to become a nuclear power, he's working hard to get officials from Pyongyang and Washington to come to Beijing in August for negotiations to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. He's also warming relations with traditional rivals such as India, and he impressed world leaders with his problem-solving attitude when he attended the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Evian, France, in June, as a special guest.
To understand more about Hu's foreign policy and how it compares to that of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, BusinessWeek Senior Writer Rose Brady spoke with Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor at the University of Michigan and a longtime expert on China. He also served in the Clinton Administration as a senior adviser on Asia. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: Is China's foreign policy changing?
A: In the last two to three years, China has moved significantly from its previous foreign-policy stance, which I would characterize as petulant moralism. [This is the notion that] "we have been humilitated and taken advantage of by the industrial powers for last 150 years, you owe us a lot, we're right, and you need to recognize the moral correctness of our stance -- and then we can talk about specifics." That's an irritating stance to deal with much of the time.
They have moved from that to adopting what I would call a more normal or typical foreign-policy position that recognizes explicitly that they have national interests. Their foreign policy is geared to promoting domestic economic development and reducing chances of conflict around the perpiphery. As they have made that transition, they have become more satisfying to deal with because they have become more willing to engage problems on a pragmatic rather than a principled level.
Q: So how does China view itself?
A: China over the last couple of years has come to see itself as a major country. It's no longer a victim in the international arena. It's a major, respected country, a member of multilateral regimes, widely regarded as being a constructive player. It's driven by their desire to minimize foreign-policy problems so they can focus on domestic economic developments. They're not being very ideological about it.
Q: How does Hu Jintao's style differ from Jiang Zemin's?
A: In style [Hu] is different from Jiang Zemin. Hu is someone who quickly gets down to business and focuses very much on the international issues at hand. Jiang in almost every meeting would find some way to review Chinese philosophy, poetry, or culture, or talk about his own upbringing, in addition to the issues at hand. There was a real mixture of hardnosed grappling with the issues and this personal overlay that went off in all kinds of directions.
Jiang was a great believer in the importance of personal diplomacy -- [the idea that] people do make a difference, especially when leaders deal with each other. Jiang became heavily invested in his personal relationship with leaders of the U.S. We don't know whether Hu Jintao will put a similar emphasis on personal relations.
Q: Isn't Hu playing a more active role than Jiang did on issues such as North Korea?
A: With North Korea, China clearly has increased its engagement. [In the past,] they have sought a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. They have been willing to try to facilitate that -- but typically in a rather opaque fashion. They listen carefully when the U.S. briefs them, they state their objectives, which are largely compatible with our own. They use their own channels to deal with North Korea but don't tell you a great deal about that.
The situation on the Korean peninsula has deteriorated, especially over the last eight months. Reflecting those developments, China has become more deeply and actively engaged. China is sufficiently alarmed to get out in front.
Q: Is Jiang still involved? Even though he has retired as President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, he's still head of the Central Military Commission.
A: We're now in a transition. The flow [of power] is clearly toward Hu Jintao, but we don't know to what extent Jiang continues to lead. North Korea is overwhelmingly a military issue, and Jiang is in charge of the Chinese military. So he's got to be involved with this.
Q: How do you see relations between China and the U.S. these days?
A: Beijing made a decision back in the fall of 2000 that it really needs a relationship with the U.S. in order to keep their domestic trajectory on track. They used September 11 to very ably change the views of the skeptics in the Bush Administration, so they now see China's role as basically cooperative and helpful. They have built a strong and cooperative relationship with the U.S.
But there's one area where the Hu Administration may be making a difference. This is in the area of economic reform -- the energy with which they will implement their obligations under the WTO [World Trade Organization] accession. Here, I see some signs that suggest they may be more inclined to protect the state-owned enterprise sector, be more concerned with unemployment, and less willing on balance to go all out for economic development. And [they may be] less willing on balance to implement WTO requirements that they feel can be socially disruptive.
If that's true, it's politically understandable, but it will significantly raise trade frictions with the U.S. There's already pressure on the White House on the imbalance of bilateral trade and China's dragging its feet on WTO implementation. That could end up being a problem for U.S.-China relations.