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Last Updated: Monday, 21 November 2005, 11:44 GMT
Bush leaves China with few gains
By Louisa Lim
BBC News, Beijing

George W Bush (left) with Chinese President Hu Jintao - 20/11/05
The two leaders took care not to cause offence
"Leaders highlight common interests," the official China Daily trumpeted on Monday.

And US President George Bush's brief, stage-managed trip to Beijing was one that all sides tried desperately to spin.

Even ahead of the visit, officials had played down any expectations of breakthroughs on what was essentially a "housekeeping" trip.

In the event, Mr Bush only secured vague, familiar-sounding pledges on the major issues, such as the huge Chinese trade surplus, the value of the Chinese currency and intellectual property rights.

And while Mr Bush's calls for China to allow its people greater political and religious freedom may have made headlines overseas, they were not even reported in the Chinese press.

Even if the Bush administration's policy towards China changes in a positive direction, the development of relations is unlikely to be smooth sailing
China's Jiefangjun Bao newspaper

The lack of any tangible progress brings into focus questions about whether the nature of the relationship has changed.

"The general power context has changed, because China is rising and the US has more problems in the world," said Shi Yinhong, from People's University in Beijing.

"The US on the one hand has a new realisation of the importance of China, but on the other hand is still suspicious and worried about the future role of China in East Asia."

'Sideways step'

The nature of the US-China relationship has been under scrutiny since Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick made a speech in September, which appeared to signal a new approach by Washington to Beijing's economic and political rise.

Mr Zoellick seemed to be sending a message to American conservatives that containment would no longer work, as he urged Beijing to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community.

Construction workers in Beijing - archive picture
China's rapid economic growth is changing the US perspective

There had been a general expectation that President Bush would expand on this ambiguous concept during his trip to China.

But those hoping for clarification were disappointed. Writing in the China Daily, Xue Fukang from the China Reform Forum questioned whether Mr Zoellick's speech even constituted a shift away from the old containment-engagement strategy.

"I really think it's a step sideways rather than anything else," said Russell Leigh Moses, an American professor teaching at People's University.

"We're starting to see the beginnings of a new policy towards China. But it has no name, no sense of where it's going."

Indeed, there were no clues when the two leaders came face to face. During this damp squib of a meeting, both sides trod carefully when it came to criticising each other.

I saw new evidence that the two sides were really trying to create a foundation for a constructive working relationship
Rick Baum, UCLA

President Bush called on China to "continue making the historic transition to greater freedom", language designed to avoid offence. He had already made his toughest calls for China to democratise earlier in the week, in Japan.

Both sides skated over the vexed issue of Taiwan's status without too much difficulty.

For Rick Baum, a political scientist from UCLA, the lack of "posturing and puffery" was a positive sign.

"I saw new evidence that the two sides were really trying to create a foundation for a constructive working relationship while acknowledging real and serious differences," he said.

"Maybe we've turned a corner. Maybe it's a small corner, maybe it's a little turn, but it's better than going in the other direction," he said.

Away from policy debates, the relationship still remains uneasy.

A survey in the China Youth Daily of more than 3,000 Chinese citizens suggested that 55% disliked the US as a country.

More than three-quarters of respondents said the US often interfered in other country's internal affairs, while two-thirds thought the US tries to use economics to dominate other countries.

It seems this short visit by Mr Bush has failed to win over the Chinese public.


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