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Bush Sets, and Meets, Low Expectations for China Trip

One of the focal points of President Bush's recently concluded trip to Asia was his stopover in China.  The White House had lowered expectations for the trip, in which no new agreements were announced.  Experts say that, in this respect, the trip could be termed a success and may be an indication of what they describe as a more "mature" relationship between Washington and Beijing. 

There were no major agreements that came out of President Bush's recent trip to China.  Nonetheless, Towson University Associate Professor of History Steven Phillips said the trip was a success, given what he said were low expectations set by the Bush administration. 

"I think, particularly when compared with the Latin America debacle, the trip went very well," said Mr. Phillips.  "The Chinese went out of their way not to be irritated when he [Bush] went to the church, when he talked about Taiwan and democracy, while in Japan.  The talks with [Chinese President] Hu Jintao, by all accounts, were cordial.  There weren't a lot of substantive things that were going to come out of this.  But I think that maybe right now, what the Bush administration was looking for was not a home run [a big success], but simply to be seen as competent and to be able to work with others."

One contentious issue was human rights and democracy.  In recent years, Beijing has released a prominent dissident prior to the visit to China by a U.S. leader.  This time, no dissidents were released and some were even rounded up during President Bush's visit.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Beijing China still has a way to go before it can be considered a democracy.  But she said it is an improvement that Chinese President Hu Jintao acknowledged the issue of democracy.

"I can remember times in the past where both here and in a number of other countries you were just told to mind your own business," said Ms. Rice.  "Well, that's not the case now.  They [Chinese leaders] are trying to address it."

Relations between the United States and China are not solely based on human rights issues.  Adam Segal, at the Council on Foreign Relations, says President Bush did lay out U.S. concerns over human rights and democratization in China in a speech in Japan, at the beginning of his Asia trip.  But he added that when it comes to China, the president is juggling many other issues, as well.

"The speech in Kyoto that he [Bush] made this trip was a kind of refocusing on the issue [of human rights], but because the U.S. has such a complicated relationship and because it has, quite honestly, other immediate foreign policy goals, North Korea, avian flu, the trade deficit, that rely on Chinese cooperation," he explained.

Mr. Segal says he believes that despite strong differences, both countries appear more interested in working together, which he adds may be an indication that the U.S.-China relationship is becoming more mature.

"I think both sides recognize what the difficulties are in the relationship, trade, Taiwan, human rights," he added. "But both sides also increasingly realize just how important the other side is to it, and how important good relations between the two countries are for economic growth, world peace and sort of larger global issues."

Meanwhile, the issue of trade dominated discussions between President Bush and President Hu.  U.S. officials say the U.S. trade deficit with China could reach $200 billion by the end of this year.

Towson University's Professor Phillips says it is unrealistic to expect that the Chinese would have made any major trade concessions during President Bush's visit.

"I think it's naive to think the Chinese would humiliate themselves by having George Bush show up, and then pretend, 'Oh, we've been convinced.  We'll do whatever the Americans want,'" added Mr. Phillips.  "I would encourage you to think, what will we have in six months?  And what will Hu Jintao bring as a gift and what announcements will he make to help the trip go well when he comes to Washington next year?"

Professor Phillips said one thing he expects is some Chinese response to U.S. accusations that Beijing keeps its currency exchange rate artificially low.  He added that gone are the days of what he described as "incredibly important statements" or "earth-shattering changes" in U.S.-China relations.  

"We know each other.  We've got our hands deep in each other's pockets.  Cross, trans-Pacific contacts are so numerous.  Now, it may not be as exciting, things are going to be more incremental in this way.  I know it's not as romantic, because we like Sino-American relations to be big," he said.

Professor Phillips said, barring a future crisis, he expects this trend to continue.

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