The New Guy Bears Watching
Author Tom Plate

The New Guy Bears Watching

China’s leader makes a big impression.

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

This article originally appeared in AsiaMedia.

LOS ANGELES -- After the recent swing of China’s new president through the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese diplomacy has never looked better.

To be sure, that’s not exactly a difficult standard to exceed. It wasn’t so long ago that the term ‘‘Chinese diplomacy’’ -- a mixture of official silence, official denunciation and unofficial sulking -- was a bad oxymoronic joke.

But this new guy, president for less than a year, bears watching. Hu Jintao raised a lot of approving eyebrows on a recent diplomatic jaunt. If U.S. President George Bush isn’t careful, world leaders (not just in Asia) are going to start looking for the hot ticket of a Beijing barbecue invitation in their diplomatic mail.

Even Western news accounts of Hu’s performance were positive. And that’s not easy for the West’s media, which generally can’t forget the tank-versus-demonstrator image of Tiananmen Square.

Hu knocked audiences dead in Bangkok and Australia, where he was invited to deliver an address to parliament by the government of John (‘‘Don’t call me U.S. sheriff’’) Howard.

In his speech, Hu minimized banalities and got down to business, overshadowing the even more famous head of state who spoke on the dais the day before.

Australia has relatively few people (20 million) and many resources (like energy). China has relatively few natural resources and many people (1.3 billion). Hu said he really respected Australia and announced the desire to purchase enormous amounts of its liquid natural gas.

Said the heretofore politically conservative Howard about the People’s Republic of China, Australia’s third largest trading partner: ‘‘I can say very confidently that (we have) a strong relationship, built on mutual respect for each other’s traditions.’’ Really?

By contrast, the guy who spoke to parliament the day before seemed more presidential pomp than substance -- and in a big-time circumstance to get home. He stayed in Australia for scarcely a day, much as he had hopscotched across the Asian continent at every stop -- as if he had a plane to catch. Which invariably he did.

But Bush in a rush is not the prettiest of sights. Worse yet, the president’s carry-on baggage contained a limited agenda: mostly terrorism and what-can-you-do-for-me in Iraq. That’s understandable in wartime, but Asia did not choose to go to this war; Bush did.

Bush is generally likable, but Asia gets antsy when America fixates on one or two of its problems when Asia’s list is much longer. It prefers U.S. presidents with that ‘‘vision’’ thing instead of that ‘‘me-decade’’ thing.

By contrast, China did offer a vision. With so many mouths to feed, it can’t afford to invade other countries, with or without U.N. Security Council sanction. And so in Bangkok, for the annual economic council (APEC) conference, Hu was at pains to explain that China’s economic gains were nobody’s loss. His vision is win-win, and since no one can stop giant China’s progress anyway, who was arguing?

And that’s the point. So much seems better about China these days that the new Hu is not only getting what the West would call ‘‘honeymoon period’’ (serious criticism not permitted for a decent interval) but his whole country is too.

In the short run, that’s a good thing. China needs all the help it can get to dredge itself out of the economic swamp. If a healthy sprinkling of worldwide goodwill will convert China into a nation in good standing, what’s the harm?

But can China do that as presently constituted?

Only history will tell, but until it does, Asia needs an appealing counterforce to keep from tilting in the wrong direction. No one has the clout for that role except the United States.

Thus, Hu’s performance is a wake-up call to the West that China is no longer playing bush-league ball. Mark Hu’s own words: ‘‘All in all, my visit has achieved its purpose.’’ That purpose?

In Australia, China’s leader fingered ‘‘Taiwan independence’’ as the greatest threat to regional peace. Perhaps that’s Hu’s real ‘‘vision’’ thing: to move faster than his predecessor on reunification. The new guy bears watching carefully.