Hu Jintao bristles: Back off on Tibet and Taiwan

Chinese President Hu Jintao, addressing business leaders in Washington, said any US-China relationship must be based on mutual respect, calling Tibet and Taiwan core Chinese interests.

Jim Young/Reuters
China's President Hu Jintao delivers remarks to the US-China Business Council in Washington on Jan. 20.

Chinese President Hu Jintao used a lunch address with US business leaders Thursday to underscore the theme he has sought to establish for his state visit to Washington: Both countries as well as the world can benefit from enhanced US-China cooperation, but it must be cooperation based on mutual respect.

Just in case it was unclear to anyone what Mr. Hu meant, he spelled it out with two examples. The US, he said, must recognize that Taiwan and Tibet are “issues that concern China’s territorial integrity and China’s core interests.”

In other words, stay out. Hu cited the examples a day after President Obama referred to Tibet and the Dalai Lama in a press conference with Hu, and just hours after Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader, brought up the issue of Tibet in a meeting with Hu.

The House minority leader also conveyed “the concerns ... on both sides of the aisle” over the continued detention of Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, she said in a statement. Ms. Pelosi noted the fact that Mr. Liu was not permitted to travel to Norway in December to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, refrained from publicly citing Liu’s case Wednesday.

Hu’s words, delivered at a luncheon in his honor sponsored by the US-China Business Council and the National Committee on United States-China Relations, suggested areas of potential future tension – for example, if the US continues to sell arms to Taiwan. Military-to-military relations between China and the US are only now beginning to recover from the freeze they experienced after the Obama administration announced arms sales to Taiwan more than a year ago.

Those flies in the ointment aside, Hu focused mostly on the benefits for both countries of increased economic and security cooperation. Addressing the commonly held view in the US that China is more of an economic threat than an opportunity, Hu said that in fact, China had been a bright spot for US business through the global recession.

“For many US companies, their China operations have become the most profitable of their global operations,” he said.

From Washington, Hu was to continue to Chicago, where he plans to visit a Chinese-owned auto-parts factory. Such a visit will put the emphasis on a China that creates US jobs, rather than destroying them.

Some US business leaders say they are holding out hope that Hu’s visit will mark a genuine turn in China toward the “level playing field” for US and other international companies that Obama called for Wednesday. During Hu’s visit, China committed to opening markets wider – including for government procurement contracts – and to honoring foreign companies’ intellectual property rights.

As one example, the Chinese government announced on Wednesday that it will audit government-office software use and publish the audit’s results. “If the audit is thorough, the additional transparency on this issue should result in greater software sales for US companies,” said John Frisbie, president of the US-China Business Council, in a statement.

Only 1 in 10 users of Microsoft software in China has paid for the product, said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive officer, in a White House meeting Wednesday with US business leaders, Hu, and Obama.

Even as Hu called for mutual respect and a sense of equitable cooperation – particularly in the Asia-Pacific – he also fell back on the notion of China as not-quite-yet a developed global power.

“We are keenly aware that China is still the largest developing country in the world,” he said. A day after publicly acknowledging China’s shortcomings in the respect of human rights, Hu said, “We still have a long way to go.... Development holds the key to all our problems.”

Hu was introduced to his audience by Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of State and national security adviser whom President Nixon dispatched on a secret mission to China in 1971, which led to the two adversaries reestablishing diplomatic relations.

Recalling that Chinese leader Zhou Enlai had told him that renewed US-China relations “will shake the world,” Dr. Kissinger said that the current generation of US-China leader “has different task.... We are working to build the world, not to shake it.”

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