Monday, April 24, 2006

Boorish on the Potomac

Considering how much time and effort was spent on the ceremonial details of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official visit to Washington DC, last week it is hard to understand how things could have gotten fouled up so badly.

It should be remembered that the visit started off as a deliberate put down. The Chinese argued strenuously for a full state visit complete with a black-tie state dinner. They got an official state lunch and welcome on the White House grounds. Things went downhill from there.

First the announcer described the national anthem being played in Hu’s honor as the anthem of the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China.

In the middle of the ceremony a heckler from the Falungong, a quasi Buddhist sect banned in China, was allowed to scream abuse on the Chinese president for at least one full minute, some say more than two minutes, before being evicted.

Toward the end of the ceremony, President Bush was photographed grabbing Hu’s jacket sleeve to guide him in the right direction. Hu looks down on President Bush with obvious distaste as if to say keep your mangy hands off me.

At the press conference in the oval office a bored-looking Vice President Dick Cheney is photographed slumped in a chair reading a book while the two presidents are answering question.

The official Chinese media may not have reported the heckler or some of the other boorish incidents. But pictures, videos and descriptions are all over the Chinese Internet, stoking anger even among those blogs outside of the PRC that normally spend their time bashing the Chinese Communist Party.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the long-term consequences of Thursday’s events for the US and people everywhere yearning for a lowering of international tensions would turn out to be both negative and significant,” said the China Confidential blog.

This was President George W Bush’s Belgrade moment. I suppose there may be a few Chinese who do not believe that America deliberately bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. I suppose there might be a few Chinese who don’t believe that the US deliberately sought to humiliate President Hu.

What many can’t understand is how the woman heckler not only was permitted so close to the two president but why she was allowed to scream abuse for such a long time. Watching it on Fox News from here, it seemed to go on forever, and one wondered why somebody didn’t remove her?

As it turns out the heckler, Wang Wenji, had obtained press credential from the Epoch Times, an online Falungong newpaper. Later the Epoch Times apologized and said, rather disingenuously, I think: “If the Epoch Times had known of her intentions to protest we would have seen that her press credentials were withdrawn.”

In fact, Wang was notorious. She has protested outside of Chinese consulates before and on an earlier occasion broke through the security barrier to confront former Chinese president Jiang Zemin while he was visiting Malta. Could the Secret Service not have known of her?

Some American commentators shrugged the incident off or tried to put a good face on it. Isn’t it nice that the Chinese president gets to hear dissenting voices that he doesn’t hear in his own country?

It’s not as if traveling Chinese presidents haven’t encountered protestors before. Anytime a senior Chinese official visits Europe or the US, he is dogged by proponents of Tibetan independence, Taiwan independence and other causes. They just usually aren’t invited to the party.

I wonder how many of these commentators would have applauded anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, if she had stood up from the gallery of the House of Representatives and shouted “Your days are numbered” at Bush during his State-of-the Union Speech for two solid minutes. In fact, she was hustled out of the chamber before she said a word, if indeed she was planning to say something.

To be fair, the Chinese bear some responsibility for the fiasco. After all, they were the ones obsessed with the ceremonial aspects of the visit, basically demanding a big photo-op that would somehow convey an image of a rising (peacefully, of course) China.

They might have been wiser to have accepted the Bush’s administration’s initial offer to spend a day, or better a weekend, at the ranch or Camp David. Then the two presidents might have had a real conversation instead of rushing through their talking points.

But fundamentally it was the host who was responsible. In the space of one hour we managed to refer to our guest’s anthem by the name of his enemy; let a heckler harangue the guest for two full minutes before shutting her up; manhandled the president of a friendly country off the stage. Not bad for a day’s work.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Why the Chinese Love Seattle

It is no coincidence that Chinese President Hu Jintao made Seattle his maiden stop on his first visit to the United States as president. Every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping has made it a point to spend some time in this pleasant city of half a million people in America’s far-northwest corner.

Deng Xiaping toured the famous Boeing airplane assembly plant during his stopover in 1979. Former President Jiang Zemin added a folksy touch by paying a call on the family of a “typical” Boeing worker in their home.

President Hu by contrast, dined at the lakeside mansion of Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates. He will be the guest of honor at a dinner at the Gates’s mansion, though officially hosted by Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire. Local corporations are paying $20,000 per seat to attend the dinner.

He was scheduled to spend two days in the Seattle region, touring the Boeing aircraft plant and Microsoft campus and giving a major speech on U.S.-China business relations before flying on to Washington, D.C. to meet President George W. Bush.

Among the dignitaries on hand to greet the Chinese president was former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke, the only Chinese-American to become governor of a U.S. state. He is helping organize the visit.

Said Mr. Locke: “Seattle is his first stop, and what he says here will be watched closely. His speech will have significance to the entire country, not just in Washington state.”

Mr. Locke’s will be a familiar face. He met the Chinese president on two previous occasions while he was governor, the first when Mr. Hu visited San Francisco as vice president in 2002 and later in Beijing.

Why do the Chinese love Seattle so much? Washington is probably the most free-trade friendly and China-friendly state in America. Mr. Hu will be hoping to build on that sentiment as he moves east and has to deal with more contentious issues such as China’s enormous trade surplus with America.

While he is in Seattle President Hu will probably hear very little about the usual American complaints: the undervalued renminbi or the burgeoning trade deficit. Seattle’s big beef is Washington’s restrictive visa policy which sometimes makes it difficult for Chinese pilots to come to the US to pick up an aircraft China has just paid $165 million to buy.

Probably the love affair can best be summed up in two words: Boeing and Microsoft. Both corporations were founded and headquartered in Seattle (Boeing’s corporate headquarters moved to Chicago, but Seattle is still the base for its extensive commercial airplane industry) and are well known in China.

It is possible that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is the most famous American in China, possibly even better known (certainly better liked) that President Bush. Add to the mix the giant Starbucks coffee chain. Its original coffee shop is still open on the Seattle waterfront, although Hu’s entourage would not fit in it.

Said Joe Borich, Executive Director of the Washington state China Relations Council,
“On a per capita basis, Washington does more trade with China than any other state.” The official figure is about $5 billion in exports, mostly aircraft.

One local complaint is about intellectual property protection. It has been estimated that 90% of the computer operating systems in China are pirated. Nevertheless, Microsoft has been remarkably tolerant about this, apparently taking the long view that the China market would payoff some day.

Last year it fought a fierce court battle to prevent its China leader from jumping ship to run Google’s operations in China. President Hu was expected to make a major pronouncement on intellectual property protection during his visit.

Indeed, in January Starbucks won a trademark lawsuit against a Chinese company which had used the Starbucks name and logo, translated into Chinese, without the Seattle company’s permission. A court ordered the Shanghai Xing-Bake Coffee shop to pay Starbucks 500,000 yuan (US$62,500) in damages.

While in Washington state Mr. Hu will tour the mammoth Boeing aircraft assembly plant north of Seattle. Boeing’s fortunes were buoyed at the beginning of last year when Beijing, on behalf of six Chinese airlines, ordered 60 of company’s latest model jetliners at a cost of more than $7 billion.

In gratitude Boeing officially named the series the Boeing 787, adding the numeral 8 because of its significance in Asia as a symbol of prosperity. The first Chinese Boeing 787s should be in service by the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The company is hoping the visit will help it regain its former dominance in the Chinese aircraft market. At one time Boeing made eight out of every 10 new jetliners in Chinese service. In recent years the European Airbus has been making serious inroads, and Boeing now sells roughly six of every 10 airplanes in China.

Washington was among the first states to take advantage of China’s historic market opening. As far back as 1980, one year after Deng Xiaoping’s first moves, Seattle interests snared COSCO, the Chinese shipping line.

The first Chinese merchant ship to visit the US since the beginning of Communist rule in 1949 stopped at Seattle that year. Chinese ships continue to disgorge roughly $20 billion in Chinese exports to the U.S. through the busy Port of Seattle.

The Washington State China Relations Council founded in 1979 is the oldest such state-run organization in the country. It’s founding director Bob Kapp went on to head the U.S. China Business Council in Washington D.C., the premier pro-China lobbying organization.

But for all of this history, there is very little Chinese investment in Seattle or Washington state as a whole. For many years China International Trade and Investment Co. (CITIC) operated out of the towering Columbia Center mostly buying timber. But it closed down last year, as the market moved to lower-cost producers.

The largest Chinese concern in the region is a firm called Xoceco, which makes flat panel TVs and computer screens and has its headquarters in the suburb of Bothell just north of Seattle. But it only employs about a dozen people here.

According to Kent Zhang, who handles China trade for the Washington State Department of Trade and Industry, China buying patterns are changing with its growing wealth. Where it once bought timber and clams, wealthy Chinese are looking to buy yachts. Chinese hospitals are shopping for ultra sound equipment.

The big Boeing 747 freighters that disgorge cell phones at Seattle’s airport by the tens of thousands now go back to China loaded with Washington state agricultural delicacies such as cherries, asparagus and cut flowers.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Congress Should Pass the Indo-US Deal

It is easy to criticize the controversial nuclear technology and supplies agreement with India. Certainly, plenty of people are beginning to weigh in against it as Congress takes up the matter.

The deal was announced on March 2 during President George W. Bush’s state visit to India. Under it, India agreed to designate which of its nuclear reactors were for military purposes and which where for civilian electric power production.

The civilian reactors, some of them anyway, would come under international safeguards and inspections. In return, the US would supply nuclear technology and perhaps enriched uranium, even though New Delhi never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Implementation requires Congress to exempt India from certain sections of the Atomic Energy Act. This is going to be a tough sell for many reasons. For one thing, Congressmen are in a testy mood. Even Republicans are angry that the Bush administration continues to spring things on them without prior consultation.

Bush unveiled the deal in New Delhi without first consulting anyone. Apparently, nobody in Congress was alerted to the deal even when it was in its formative stages last summer. So the administration has that against it.

But members and other influential voices have more substantive concerns, since the deal seems to overturn many time-honored notions about nuclear non-proliferation. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, has weighed in against the deal. He has credibility on these issues. As president he stopped America’s breeder reactor program.

Others complain that Washington pushed a soft deal, essentially gave away the store for a cheap foreign policy victory. India still gets to keep eight of its 22 reactors out of the inspections regime. Breeder reactors are exempt too, and it is up to New Delhi whether to declare any new reactor as being open to inspections.

As I said, it is easy to find fault with the deal.

That said, Congress should pass the necessary legislation. In the long run it is in America’s best interests. Why?

The easy answer is that the deal sets aside years of acrimony that stretch back to the Cold War years when India was effectively a Soviet ally and ties India closer to the U.S. as a “counter” against a rising China. Never mind that India is rising too.

I’m sure there is something in this, but there is a more compelling reason that has to do with energy resources. The biggest long-term threat to world peace comes from competition for increasingly scarce energy resources. Helping India use more nuclear power is one way of deflecting that trend.

B.S. Prakash, India’s Consul-General in San Francisco, put it best: “The crux of the deal is that India, which is growing by 8% annually, has huge energy needs, and we have very, very limited options. The key to this deal is to look at India’s energy needs and not so much on India’s weapons programs on which there has been excessive focus.”

India has much in common with China. Both have huge populations, both are urbanizing at a rapid pace, both depend on coal and imported oil to meet most of their energy needs. As is well-known, much of Beijing’s diplomacy in recent years has been directed at securing energy. India’s deal with the US might be seen in a similar light.

Both countries have civilian nuclear power plants, but they supply a small amount (2-3%, roughly) of their energy needs. India aims to boost this proportion to 25% by 2050, but to do so it undoubtedly needs to import more uranium.

India is not overly supplied with uranium. It has to scrounge just to keep its current plants in operation. Earlier this month New Delhi announced it was buying enriched uranium from Russia to fuel its Tarapur reactor (built by General Electric in the 1960s).

Considering that the purchase came at an inopportune time when Congress is debating the nuclear deal, one has to figure that the Indians were pretty desperate to keep this power plant in operation.

It is a truism that most of the world’s petroleum deposits lie in unstable countries and regions. Uranium deposits are in friendlier hands. Australia is the Saudi Arabia of uranium, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that at this moment Australia and China are signing an agreement that will allow China to buy uranium from Australia and even prospect and mine new deposits.

Canberra still declines to sell India uranium because it did not sign the NPT, but that could change, especially in view of the US-Indo agreement. Prime Minister John Howard has said some things that seem to imply that Canberra will take another look at India.

This agreement overturns a long-held Australian predisposition not to export uranium to anyone, and the Labor Party is still opposed to the deal. It only shows again how the imperatives of energy are impacting and sometimes supplanting the nuclear proliferation concerns.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Letter from Thailand

HUA HIN – Election day. The sound trucks rumble through the streets of this resort town 230 km south of Bangkok, exhorting people to go to the polls in Thailand’s parliamentary election.

The photos on the side of the truck show the smiling portrait of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and another man, presumably the local candidate. The only words I can make out are “Thai Rak Thai” – Thais love Thais, the name of Thaksin’s political party.

As far as I can tell there are no opposition party posters. But then all of the main opposition parties are boycotting the election. So that means that all of the Thai Rak Thai candidates are running unopposed, and thus the new parliament may be a one-party body.

Well, it’s now quite that simple. Even unopposed candidates have to get votes from at least 20 per cent of the registered voters, so it is possible that there may not be enough legitimately returned members to form a quorum, meaning that Thaksin will remain a “caretaker” premier for some months.

It is interesting to me how all the papers meticulously refer to Thaksin as the “Caretaker Prime Minister.” That is technically accurate, but I don’t remember papers in other parliamentary democracies referring to their PM in that way after parliament has been dissolved. Seems like a subtle put-down.

The daily anti-Thaksin demonstrations in the capital have dominated the papers, making their frontpages look indistinguishable from day to day. The only difference seems to be the venue; one day it is a large public park, the next a large shopping mall.

The latest ploy by the opposition was to try to persuade the King to intervene and invoke Article 7 of the Thai Constitution, which would allow for appointment of a temporary, non-party government. But so far the King has not made a move.

Things got a little nasty late in the week. Media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent opponent of the PM, was accused of insulting the King. I don’t know what he (or his editors) is supposed to have written since the papers refer only vaguely to “remarks,” not wanting to repeat the libel. Lese majeste is a serious offense in Thailand.

Today’s Nation newspaper reports that the commander-in-chief of the Thai army attacked Sondhi for making “insulting” the King. Seems kind of ominous to me since the army so far has stayed abofe the crisis.

Meanwhile, Sondhi is reported to be in Quilin, China, resting. He was supposed to have returned to Thailand for the polls, but says he couldn’t get a flight to Bangkok.