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Dealing with China's foreign policy vacuum

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- Vice-President Hu Jintao's high-profile trip to five European countries has raised two basic questions about Chinese foreign policy.

Firstly, while Hu and his Fourth Generation colleagues are set to assume power at the 16th Communist party congress next October, do they have what it takes to handle the tricky diplomatic portfolio?

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Secondly, how effective will Hu and company be in seeking a diplomatic profile for China that is commensurate with its emerging status as a "regional superpower"?

Hu's belated trip to Western Europe illustrates the vacuum that will be left by the wholesale retirement of top-level diplomatic decision-makers in the coming two years.

President Jiang, who heads the country's highest foreign policy organ -- the Communist party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA) -- will be stepping down from his party posts at the 16th congress.

So will Vice-Premier and former foreign minister Qian Qichen, often known as the godfather of modern Chinese diplomacy.

Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan is also expected to call it quits when a new State Council cabinet is formed in March 2003.

Frontrunners to succeed Tang include two veteran America watchers: Vice-Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Ambassador to the U.S. Yang Jiechi.

However, in the Chinese context, the foreign minister has limited policy-making powers. And neither Li nor Yang, even if promoted minister, is expected to become a State Councillor, not to mention a Politburo member.

Lacking experience

Hu is tipped to inherit Jiang's position as head of LGFA as early as next October.

The problem, however, is that Hu has spent his entire career as a party functionary.

And even though in the Chinese tradition, both the state presidency and vice-presidency have diplomatic functions, Hu has had little experience in foreign policy formulation.

Except for a trip to Japan in early 1998, Hu has not visited a major country until his current European tour.

And even though he has been one of three vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission since 1999, Hu's participation in military and security matters has been limited.

Nor can Hu look for much diplomatic expertise among other Fourth Generation stalwarts. For example, Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, the frontrunner to be premier, has never held a diplomatic or national security portfolio.

"As far back as 1999, Jiang had said in internal meetings that Hu should start playing a bigger role in foreign and military affairs," said a diplomatic source in Beijing.

Tough test

"However, this has not come to pass, leading to speculation Jiang has deliberately kept the portfolio to himself so that he can still wield a tremendous influence in foreign and security policies after his retirement."

With or without Jiang's guidance, however, the Hu team will face a tough test on this treacherous front.

One of the Fourth Generation leadership's biggest challenge is how to modify the edicts laid down by Deng Xiaoping not long after the Tiananmen Square crackdown: "Keep a low profile and never take the lead [in world affairs]."

Particularly so far as the U.S. is concerned, Deng had argued that Beijing should "seek cooperation and avoid [seeking] troubles."

However, this lie-low stance is 10 years old.

Moreover it is out of sync with the image of China as an emergent superpower that the Jiang leadership tried so hard to project at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in what officials called "our great Shanghai."

In fact, Jiang has since the late 1990s tried to wage "big power diplomacy," whose essence is that China should go after a pro-active role on the world stage -- and on par with major players such as the U.S., the European Union and Russia.

The trouble, however, is that Beijing's foreign, particularly American, policy has often vacillated between avoiding trouble on the one hand, and assertiveness on the other.

This has given the world the impression of indecisiveness if not also ineffectiveness.

This waffling tendency is evident in Beijing's handling of the September 11 crisis.

Jiang and his advisers are torn between compliance and confrontation regarding President George W. Bush's call for global cooperation in the anti-terrorist campaign.

Danger signals

Jiang knows that going along with U.S. wishes at America's hour of need may make for a much-needed boost in bilateral ties. And particularly at the early stage, there were arguments in Beijing's top circles in favor of overall cooperation with Washington.

However, the Beijing leadership also sees the danger signals: that the U.S. might use the anti-terrorist campaign against Osama bin Laden as a pretext for setting up quasi-permanent footholds in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The upshot is that Jiang has gravitated toward a policy of grudging acquiescence, which could turn out to be neither here nor there.

Firstly, given that Beijing has not been as forthcoming as countries such as Russia in supporting the Washington-led anti-terrorist crusade, the U.S. has felt no obligation to do anything in return for China on Taiwan or other fronts.

In fact, Washington announced last week the sale of US$50 million worth of anti-tank missiles to Taiwan. And Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear Washington would continue its vigilance over China's human rights record.

Nationalism on the rise

Secondly, Beijing's acquiescence in Washington's possibly protracted warfare in Afghanistan might hurt its generally good standing in the Third World -- particularly among Arab countries as well as Muslim nations in Asia.

Moreover, nationalistic -- and in many instances, anti-U.S. -- feelings are on the upswing within China.

Despite the fact that the Chinese media are under orders not to show too many images of killed and maimed civilians in Afghanistan, opposition to Washington's war effort is growing at least in urban areas.

Given that Jiang has been in power since 1989, it is relatively easy for the president to rein in hardliners and nationalists in the army and other sectors.

This, however, cannot be said for Fourth Generation leaders such as Hu and Wen, who might be obliged to cut a deal with the hawks as well as nationalists.

Pursuing a more aggressive, "big power" diplomacy, however, may upset not only the U.S. but China's neighbors such as Japan and Southeast Asian countries, which are already worried about the so-called China threat.

During his European tour and in upcoming trips that are being arranged for him, Hu is under pressure to display the kind of maturity and sophistication that are badly needed to reassure China's friends and foes alike.


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