Bush Should Have Skipped Beijing

His visit only pointed to the lack of chemistry between the nations' leaders and the many unresolved policy differences

By Dexter Roberts

It was the summit that maybe shouldn't have ever happened. President George W. Bush's rushed two-day visit to Beijing on Feb. 21-22 was marked by petty disputes and accomplished little. Watching Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin at their joint Feb. 21 press conference only underscored the point: The two leaders' body language suggested that they weren't hitting it off or creating any of the personal chemistry that Bush developed with Russian President Vladmir Putin. Despite the cheerful flower arrangements and leafy plants behind them, the two Presidents looked like ice blocks standing together in the vast lobby of the Great Hall of the People.

Even deciding where Bush would spend his one night in town created friction. While China was certain that he should stay in the sprawling Diaoyutai Guest House in western Beijing -- after all, that's where President Richard Nixon had stayed on his historic visit exactly 30 years to the day earlier -- Bush and his entourage were emphatic. They would lodge only at Beijing's self-proclaimed "six-star" hotel, the luxurious St. Regis, near one of the capital's biggest embassy districts and walking distance from the U.S. Embassy.

Police threw up a cordon the likes of which Beijing has rarely seen, and even the hotel's health club was off-limits for a three-day stretch, causing some annoyance among its members (this reporter included). When the police also tried to block me on Thursday evening from entering the office building where BusinessWeek's Beijing bureau is located, just across the street from the hotel, I simply marched past them.


  The joint press conference that was broadcast live on Chinese television seemed to say it all. The two leaders exchanged few smiles and none of the backslapping we've become accustomed to with Bush. His expression of choice was the crinkled-mouth frown, as he listened to Jiang spout his platitudes about how the two nations "should step up dialogue and cooperation," and "work together to move the constructive and cooperative relations between us further forward."

Jiang, too, seemed to pay little attention when the U.S. President threw out his share of platitudes, including that the U.S. "will be a steady partner in China's historic transition toward greater prosperity and greater freedom."

One of the oddest moments came when Jiang tried to sidestep some tough questions on religious freedom in China and Iraq thrown at him by the traveling Washington press. In the two-part questions that were addressed to both Presidents, Jiang simply didn't respond. Only at the end of the press conference did he finally come to life, waving his hands and smiling, as he gave his answers -- of a sort.


  Not too many issues were directly addressed. During his speech to students at Tsinghua University -- China's top science academy -- Bush seemed content to talk about the importance of faith and how deeply religious Americans are as a people. On one of the most pressing issues dividing the two superpowers, China's arms sales to countries such as Iran and Pakistan, little or no progress was apparent.

Indeed, if the two nations hadn't been able to tout their supposed cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the leaders would have had little positive to point to at all. In truth, China really hasn't helped much in the war on terrorism other than not trying to obstruct the U.S. campaign.

On Taiwan, Bush sounded the right note -- in marked contrast to former President Bill Clinton's sellout on the issue during his '98 visit. Bush referred publicly several times to the Taiwan Relations Act, the law that requires the U.S. to protect the island if it's threatened. He barely mentioned China's obsessive mantra when dealing with cross-strait issues, the so-called One China principle, which states explicitly that there can be no independent Taiwan. That was a depature from the previous U.S. Administration. When Clinton visited China, he paid lip service to the phrase, although what he thought he could accomplish by humoring his hosts this way is still a mystery.


  Finally, after a rushed visit to the Great Wall -- with his limo getting a flat tire on his way to lunch before that -- Bush jumped back on Air Force One, with an entourage of literally 1,000 aides and reporters in tow.

The Bush visit, I'd conjecture, will be remembered more for what didn't happen and what wasn't accomplished. Plans for Bush to meet Chinese Vice-President Hu Jintao, Jiang's putative successor, were crunched into a brief huddle with the elusive Hu on Friday morning. (Hu is expected to visit the U.S. later this year.)

This was strange. Beijing seemed so intent on making sure the Veep wasn't around, they even blocked the distribution of BusinessWeek during the visit, which contained a long story on the next generation of China's leaders and featured Hu on the cover. Perhaps this is one summit -- already rescheduled from last fall after September 11 -- that could have been missed altogether.

Roberts is BusinessWeek's Beijing bureau chief

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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