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How Will China's Likely Next Leader Affect Ties With US?

China's Vice President Hu Jintao, who is expected to become the country's next leader, makes his first official visit to the United States on April 27. The trip was aimed at establishing Mr. Hu's personal contact with the Bush administration, but strains between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan will likely dominate the agenda.

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao made one of his rare public speeches introducing President Bush to students at Qinghua University last February. Mr. Hu once studied hydraulic engineering at this prestigious school.

He outlined what China sees as the essence of the relationship between Beijing and Washington: "Our two countries shoulder important responsibilities and have broad common interests in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large. I'm convinced as long as the two sides respect each other, treat each other as equals, and seek common ground while shelving differences, China-U.S. relations will stay sound and move forward steadily," Mr. Hu said.

Mr. Hu's speech restated China's long-standing position on Sino-American relations word-for-word, revealing he is unlikely to deviate from Beijing's political line. It showed nothing about the man himself.

UCLA China scholar Richard Baum says Vice President Hu Jintao's relative lack of international experience makes it hard for foreign officials to gauge his diplomatic prowess. But on the domestic front, he said Hu Jintao is deft at making allies inside China's secretive and complex political world.

"He has held positions in the Communist Youth league under Hu Yaobang, a noted liberal reformer. He has held positions in the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party under conservative elder statesman Song Ping, he helped to impose a hard line in Tibet in 1989, he's worked in remote Gansu province, and in the meantime, he seems to have maintained a good working relationship with members off all different factions in Beijing - liberal, conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders," Mr. Baum said.

Mr. Hu will need political skills to mend the relationship with Washington that is currently strained by Beijing's unhappiness with U.S. missile defense plans that China sees as threatening and Washington's warming relationship with Taiwan.

Taiwan split from China politically amid civil war in 1949 when Communist forces defeated the Nationalist army. The Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and set up a rival government on the island, which has been ruled separately ever since. Beijing's most important political goal is to return Taiwan to central government control and China has threatened military action if Taiwan formally declares independence.

The Bush administration has offered to sell Taiwan the biggest arms package in years and to help train Taiwan's military. For the first time in two decades, the Bush administration allowed Taiwan's minister of defense to visit the United States. China has said the arms sales break long-standing agreements between Washington and Beijing.

Mr. Hu has indicated he will be firm on this core issue, telling former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that U.S.-China relations work best when Washington honors its commitments on Taiwan.

Mr. Kissinger played a key role in drafting the agreements that opened relations between China and the United States three decades ago.

But Chinese political analyst Tao Wen Zhao has said this dialogue in Washington is not about haggling over one issue, but a chance for the two sides to get to know and understand each other better.

Professor Tao said a "strategic dialogue" during Mr. Hu's visit is the key to constructive future relations between Washington and Beijing.

So far, Mr. Hu has shown little warmth toward the United States. In May 1999, he made a nationally televised address backing protests against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Thousands of Chinese students angry over the mistaken American attack pelted the U.S. Embassy with rocks and paint.

Mr. Hu also honed his hard-line credentials by crushing pro-independence protests in Tibet when he was regional party chief there in 1988 and 1989.

But some analysts say Mr. Hu has shown a progressive streak during his leadership of the Communist Party School, something that could improve ties with the west.

Professor Baum said, whatever Mr. Hu's personal views, his policies could be determined by the global and domestic problems he will face as leader. "Externally, if the global economy could go into recession as some people predict, internally if China's WTO membership should result in dramatic increases in unemployment, then these things could force Hu Jintao to take a more activist, pro reform policy than he might otherwise prefer to do," Mr. Baum said.

But for the moment, Mr. Hu is still vice president and must be careful not to annoy his boss, President Jiang Zemin, by upstaging him. There are several cases in recent Chinese political history where the President's heir apparent either served very briefly or not at all.

Vice President Hu will meet with Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush next week, but is not expected to sign any agreements. New deals between Beijing and Washington, analysts have said, are likely to be held up for signature until President Jiang's planned U.S. trip later this year.