WASHINGTON – When President Bush sits down with Chinese President Hu Jintao this morning in the Oval Office, some of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the United States will be on the table, including the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Increasingly, administration officials believe, the key to these issues and other overseas problems may lie in Beijing, a reflection of the pivotal position China has come to play on the international stage.
China, consumed with domestic problems at home and eager for stability overseas, has long resisted playing a leading role in foreign policy. But especially in the past year, the Bush administration has pressed China to shed its traditional neutrality and take a more aggressive stance against governments that U.S. officials believe could potentially threaten U.S. interests and more broadly the international system.
“In both Iran and North Korea, China has a very serious role to play, and in some ways is the pivot for whether we’re successful in dealing with those problems,” said Michael J. Green, until December senior director for Asia policy at the White House and now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Hu will be under some pressure to say something and to signal, not only domestically here but to those countries, that China’s patience is wearing thin.”
Besides providing help on Iran and North Korea, China could also assist in a range of other administration priorities, including ending the deadly conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and putting pressure on the military dictatorship in Burma. But Chinese support for U.S. goals has thus far fallen short of the administration’s expectations, in part because China’s urgent energy needs have often trumped any concerns about the unsavory nature of other governments.
“While they recognize they are a growing international force, I believe the Chinese of today are pretty absorbed with their domestic development,” Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, the administration’s point person on China, told a small group of reporters last week. “Will the China of 10 to 15 years from now have a similar view? I can’t say.”
China’s foreign policy has traditionally stressed maintaining the status quo. But in recent months, administration officials have begun to emphasize to the Chinese that with greater economic power comes greater international responsibility. Zoellick, in a major speech last September, said that though the United States had once tried to rein in the Soviet Union, it now wanted to draw out China and integrate it into the international system.
The Chinese have made it clear that “this is their most important foreign policy relationship,” a senior U.S. official said. Administration officials hope to exploit that sentiment as they try to prod China to work with the United States on a range of issues.
When he arrived in Seattle Tuesday, Hu said China and the United States “share common strategic interests in a wide range of areas, particularly in maintaining world peace, promoting global economic growth, combating terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”