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Commentary (September 7, 2005)

Postponement of Hu's U.S. Visit: Don't Stand on Ceremony

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

Hurricane Katrina has claimed thousands of lives and caused damage that may well amount to more than US$100 billion. But its biggest diplomatic casualty was the long-anticipated visit by Hu Jintao to Washington, originally scheduled for today - the first such visit since he took over the presidency in 2003. However, the postponement is not necessarily a bad thing. US President George W. Bush is preoccupied with the natural disaster and is in no mood to exchange pleasantries with a visiting head of state and, more importantly, is not in the proper frame of mind to discuss the many issues that beset the bilateral relationship.

As it is, there were clear signs of differences between the way Beijing and Washington had been approaching the visit. The Chinese emphasised protocol, insisting on all the trappings of a state visit, while the Americans spoke in terms of a working visit where the two leaders could discuss issues in a relaxed setting, such as at Mr Bush's Crawford ranch or at Camp David.

Beijing should realise that the mood in Washington - and in much of the rest of the country - is decidedly anti-China, and Mr Bush would have come under domestic political pressure if he had hosted a high-profile state visit by Mr Hu. But the Chinese, also for domestic political reasons, wanted their leader to be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with the leader of the world's only superpower.

But because the Chinese had insisted on a 21-gun salute and a reception at the White House, there is unlikely to have been much time for serious discussion of the many issues that divide them and - most importantly - suspicions of each other's intentions.

These are things that cannot be resolved in a 60-minute meeting, half of which would have been taken up by translators. Such a setting would have resulted in nothing but a sterile recitation of each side's positions on such issues as the North Korean nuclear crisis, human rights, Taiwan, and trade and energy.

Randy Schriver, who handled Chinese affairs when he served until recently as deputy assistant secretary of state, said at a Heritage Foundation discussion in Washington last week: "I think it's hard to overstate how much time and energy went into the South Lawn reception and getting the Oval Office meeting ... We've probably missed the chance for this particular visit to have good in-depth discussions on the things that we need to talk about."

Actually, state visits are few and far between. The vast majority of the dozens of leaders who visit the United States each year go on working visits, where the emphasis is on getting things done rather than on pomp and ceremony.

Besides, a visit to Mr Bush's Texas ranch is much coveted, since that is where the president invites his closest friends, such as British Premier Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Australian leader John Howard.

So it is odd that China rejected both Crawford and Camp David. After all, those are places far from prying eyes where the two sides can discuss seriously the issues that cannot be left to bureaucrats. While a host of issues bedevil the US-China relationship, they all boil down to one: a lack of trust.

China should abandon its fixation on form and devote more attention to substance. And the relationship with the US needs to be nurtured at the highest level, where the two leaders can take each other's measure and relate to one another. The Chinese should be pragmatic enough to realise that two days at Crawford will give Mr Hu much more quality time with Mr Bush than 21-gun salutes at the White House. And that is what the relationship needs.

(Originally appeared in the September 7, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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