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Charles Burton

Hu isn't China Add to ...

The U.S. government has pulled out all the stops for this week's official visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

President Barack Obama gave the visit considerable priority, preparing by meeting with China experts on all aspects of the relationship, from security to human rights and trade. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other cabinet members have made extensive statements on China policy in anticipation of their meetings with Mr. Hu and his entourage. And carefully crafted toasts and speeches will be made culminating in a glittering state dinner attended by 250 of Washington's elite.

But while pulling out the stops is certainly justified, given China's importance in the world, little is likely to come from it.

The dynamics of the exchange between China and the West are all too clear. The West wants China to actively change and better accord with international regimes such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. It wants China to reform its fiscal and currency policies, and eliminate non-tariff barriers to make Western products more competitive in the Chinese market. The West wants China to stop supporting rogue regimes in North Korea, Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere. And it also wants China to comply with international norms of human rights.

China responds to these demands with passive and defensive obfuscation.

Mr. Hu will note that China takes some of these concerns seriously, but he is unlikely to commit to any concrete measures to address them. Just as he is unlikely to suggest the West do anything commensurate, such as ask the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to the regime in Pyongyang.

Hu Jintao is President of the People's Republic of China, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Unlike leaders in the West, he is not constrained by his national constitution or the rule of law. He does not answer to a democratic legislature, or to public opinion as articulated by a free press. One would think that Mr. Hu would therefore be an autocratic dictator who has the final word on everything.

But the reality is quite different from our own Prime Minister, for whom it can truly be said the "buck stops here" for all aspects of Canadian government programming, domestic or foreign.

Mr. Hu, while the public face of the Chinese regime, faces challenges from his military and security apparatus, from opposing factions within the Communist Party and from powerful regional and business interests. While one might think that the Chinese regime is disdainful of Western concerns, seeing the United States as a power in decline and unable to challenge a rapidly rising China for much longer, this is only part of the story.

The other is that Mr. Hu cannot make commitments to the West because he lacks the means to assure they are kept. For instance, he may feel that China's stability would be best served by spreading its new-found wealth to the impoverished interior of the country, but he is unable to extract the necessary revenues in tax and other transfers to even start to address this issue in any meaningful way. China has, after all, gone in 30 years from being one of the world's most egalitarian countries, in terms of distribution of wealth, to one of the most economically unjust, with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.

Similarly, popular discontent with pervasive economic corruption on the part of Chinese Communist Party officials is a very serious threat to the sustainability of the current regime, but Mr. Hu - who himself is seen as an honest official - can do nothing to stop it beyond strongly worded exhortation and empty threats.

Chances are that, when the dust settles, the Obama administration will realize that all the effort it has put into preparing for this week's summit has yielded few objective results. The consequences of a failed summit between these two leaders could be quite threatening to global peace and prosperity. If China does not move on the currency issue, the United States may opt to take unilateral measures to limit Chinese imports, and a trade war that could devastate the still fragile global economic recovery would probably ensue. If China does not agree to rein in North Korea's nuclear threat, the United States and South Korea could decide to take military action in response, and China may decide to defend North Korea resulting in a resumption of the Korean War.

No one wants to see this happen.

It is therefore incumbent on the West to recognize that engagement with China requires more than high-level talks with Mr. Hu and lower-level interactions through the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We need to be much better at seeking contact and influence with senior people in the Communist Party and party-associated big business, plus the Chinese military and its security apparatus.

As for Canada, burgeoning Chinese realities cannot be accommodated by our current "one size fits all" approach to foreign relations. Our relations with China deserve a China-based approach that draws on a more comprehensive "whole of government approach," and a separate government unit to more effectively co-ordinate Canada's forward-looking engagement with China.

Charles Burton is associate professor of political science at Brock University and a former political affairs counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

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