Hedging the glad hand to China

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The joint statement released during the state visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jintao is in some ways strikingly different from a similar joint statement issued in November 2009 during American President Barack Obama’s state visit to China.

On the surface, they appear very similar. Indeed, the latest joint statement contains a line saying that the two presidents “further reaffirmed their commitment to the November 2009 U.S.-China Joint Statement.”

However, the repetition of certain sentences and the omission of others suggest that Washington has decided that it had gone too far to appease Beijing the last time, particularly where Taiwan is concerned.

China has made it no secret for the last three decades that it considers Taiwan part of its territory and gives top priority to the political reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. But the United States has for 30 years never accepted Chinese claims to sovereignty over Taiwan.

However, the 2009 Joint Statement seemed to mark a departure for the United States. Under a section titled “Building and Deepening Bilateral Strategic Trust,” the statement said: “The United States and China underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S.-China relations. China emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and expressed the hope that the United States will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The United States stated that it follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China joint communiques.”

The next paragraph asserted: “The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiques which guide U.S.-China relations. Neither side supports any attempts by any force to undermine this principle. The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.”

This seemed to say that the U.S. agreed to respect China’s claim to Taiwan to ensure progress in the Sino-American relationship. It was something Washington had never said before.

Not surprisingly, there was serious concern in Taiwan. Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, was dispatched to the island to brief its leaders on the summit meeting.

In Taiwan, Burghardt explained that the U.S. government did not accept China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.

Referring to the paragraph on sovereignty, Burghardt said: “This paragraph was negotiated solely to cover issues regarding Tibet and Xinjiang. The negotiating record is clear that this paragraph was not intended to concern Taiwan. That certainly was the U.S. understanding.”

Unfortunately, aside from China and the U.S., no one has access to the negotiating record and the Chinese certainly interpreted the paragraph on sovereignty to apply to Taiwan.

After the Burghardt remarks, Qin Gang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said: “Respecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity certainly applies to Taiwan.” Moreover, neither Tibet nor Xinjiang were mentioned in the Joint Statement, whereas Taiwan was mentioned three times in one paragraph.

American willingness to bend over backwards in November 2009 was to a large extent in anticipation of Chinese cooperation at the climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen the following month. When, instead of cooperating, Chinese officials snubbed Obama, the U.S. realized that it had made a mistake.

Accordingly, the paragraph that stirred up so much controversy in 2009 has disappeared entirely from the 2011 joint statement. There is no reference to “respecting each other’s core interests” or to its importance in ensuring steady progress in U.S.-China relations. The term “core interests” itself does not appear anywhere in the latest statement.

But clearly, the Chinese side’s position has not changed. President Hu, in a luncheon address in Washington D.C. before departing for Chicago, declared that “Taiwan and Tibet-related issues concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they represent China’s core interests.”

“We hope that the U.S. side will honor its commitments and work with us to preserve the hard-won progress of our relations,” Hu declared.

Clearly, therefore, it is the American side that has changed its attitude and declined to say anything about respecting China’s “core interests,” especially where they relate to Taiwan.

American willingness in 2009 to accommodate China and the unwillingness to do so this year reflects the deterioration of the relationship in the last year. It also indicates that Washington is more realistic today about the kind of cooperation that it can expect from China in dealing with global issues.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com). Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1@@@