Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday promised President Bush long-term economic reforms but offered no immediate concessions on the trade and security issues that threaten the two countries’ relationship.
Hailed with a 21-gun salute on a sunlit White House lawn, Hu declared that China was committed to gradually overhauling the export-driven economy that has piled up a $202-billion trade deficit with the United States and brought calls in Congress for protectionist retaliation.
But Hu stopped short of pledging the quick action the Bush administration and some in Congress have sought on currency reform and intellectual property protection.
He also did not offer Bush specific new help in dealing with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
Hopes of boosting Hu’s domestic standing with a carefully choreographed White House ceremony were set back when an activist from the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement interrupted the Chinese president’s formal remarks with heckling. A visibly angry President Bush looked on as Secret Service officers removed the woman, who had access to a news media viewing stand as a reporter for the group’s international newspaper, the Epoch Times.
The woman, identified as Wang Wenyi, 47, screamed, “President Hu, your days are numbered!” and told Bush, “Make him stop persecuting Falun Gong!”
Later, as they began a 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office, Bush told Hu that the incident was unfortunate and that he was sorry it had occurred, U.S. officials said. Hu responded “graciously,” one official said, but another U.S. official acknowledged concern that the Chinese would be angered that a White House lapse had allowed the event to be tarnished.
An administration official defended the decision to admit the activist, saying that she had proper credentials.
“We can’t go around denying access to reporters when we’re going around the world trumpeting that to do so is incorrect,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the subject.
The meeting on the lawn was marred by another gaffe when a White House announcer, treading on a sensitive subject, said over a loudspeaker that the band was about to play the national anthem of the Republic of China. That is the official name of Taiwan, the self-governing island off mainland China that Beijing views as a renegade province. Mainland China is called the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese have hoped that Hu’s visit would help reduce pressure from Congress and some in the administration for punitive action because of China’s perceived unwillingness to reduce the trade imbalance or help the United States on nonproliferation and other key security challenges.
Hu indicated a general desire to work with U.S. officials on those issues.
“We understand the American concerns over the trade imbalances, the protection of the intellectual property rights and market access,” Hu said. “We have taken measures, and we’ll continue to take steps to properly resolve the issues.”
But Hu did not lay out any timetable for action on his nation’s currency, which some experts believe may be undervalued by as much as 40%, putting U.S. goods at a competitive disadvantage, and inflating the U.S. trade deficit.
After the day’s meetings, U.S. officials focused on Hu’s public commitment to try to move China gradually to an economy based on domestic consumption rather than the exports that have bedeviled the relationship with Washington.
The Beijing government may seek to do this by encouraging more consumer spending and reducing the nation’s high personal savings rate, the officials said. If Chinese domestic demand increases, that would mean more imports from the United States, cutting the trade imbalance.
Hu promised that “we will continue to pursue the strategy of boosting domestic demand and ensuring fast and balanced economic and social development in China.”
But it also was clear that Hu left Bush unsatisfied on his request for help to restrain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Bush told reporters that in his Oval Office meeting with Hu, he had asked the Chinese president to use his leverage to win greater cooperation from neighboring North Korea, which has refused to rejoin stalled six-nations talks on its nuclear program.
Bush also pressed Hu to join the United States and other allies in building pressure on Iran through the United Nations Security Council.
But Hu said little about China’s intentions on the Iranian nuclear issue, except to repeat statements that Beijing intends to work through diplomacy. “Both sides promised to continue their effort to seek a peaceful resolution,” Hu told reporters after the meeting with Bush.
On North Korea, Hu pointed out to Bush that the government in Pyongyang was unhappy with “defensive steps” the United States had taken to try to halt the regime’s alleged counterfeiting of U.S. currency and alleged drug trafficking.
“I hope the parties will be able to further display flexibility, work together and create the necessary conditions for the early resumption of talks,” Hu said.
Derek Mitchell, who was a senior advisor on Asia at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, said he doubted the visit would mollify those in Congress who were unhappy with China.
“What they respond to is action,” said Mitchell, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The commitment to economic reform that Hu made on the lawn won’t have any effect unless action follows it.”
But he said the heckling incident could damage the U.S.-Chinese relationship if the Chinese, who are sometimes ready to believe in conspiracies, conclude that the White House allowed the woman access to send a signal of unhappiness.
“Hu will put on a brave face because he wants a positive visit and stability in the relationship,” Mitchell said. “But you have to wonder if underneath, they’ll be thinking something very different.”
Jing Huang, an Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution, said the significance of the meeting came in Hu’s realistic recognition that the two countries were so intertwined that any confrontation would hurt both sides.
He said Hu’s unwillingness to give ground to Bush on specific issues reflected in part his recognition of the political realities in Washington. “He knows that the president is very much weakened and that whoever comes to power in 2008 will heavily readjust the policy,” Huang said. “So they may not want to invest too much in Bush’s administration.”