China Leadership Monitor

China's Foreign Policy Leadership: Testing Time

Friday, January 30, 2004

Over the course of the last two years, and particularly since the elevation of Hu Jintao to the most prominent positions in China's leadership, China's foreign policy appears to have undergone a significant transformation in favor of enhanced pragmatism, flexibility, and sophistication. This transformation has coincided with what leaders both in Beijing and in Washington have characterized as the best period in U.S.-China relations in more than a decade. Nevertheless, it is evidence of the volatility of the U.S.-China relationship, and of the difficulty of managing it consistently, that commentators on both sides have recently begun forecasting considerable tension. The proximate cause of this rise in tensions, as it has been so often in the past, is the Taiwan issue, specifically the U.S. attitude toward the Chen Shui-bian government and recent actions Taiwan has taken that Beijing interprets as moves toward independence. For China's leadership, the ensuing months are going to be a time of further testing. Although neither party General Secretary Hu Jintao's nor PRC Premier Wen Jiabao's job security is not in jeopardy, neither man's reputation will be burnished by the after-effects of the latest contretemps over Taiwan. How strongly they will push back against domestic critics to maintain China's mild-mannered approach to Washington and Taipei remains an open question.