Bush has already made his mark. By projecting American power into the arc of crisis in the Islamic world—first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq—the U.S. President has placed an enormous bet that Muslim societies of the Middle East can be forced onto a path of modernity, peace and democracy. Hu's significance is less for what he has done—he seems a cautious politician—than because of the country that he leads. From Sydney to Siberia and from Tokyo to Tehran, there is not a single strategic thinker in Asia who does not know that China's rise will be the great story of the next 20 years. Already, economies as different as Australia's and Iran's are being transformed by China's appetite for natural resources. Chinese investors are expanding into Southeast Asia, while the Chinese armed forces are making a habit of displaying their might in view of their neighbors. Just last week, Japan demanded an apology from Beijing for an alleged incursion by a Chinese submarine into Japanese waters.
It is because they know that they will have to deal with China that the other Asian governments are so determined that the U.S. should maintain a vital presence in the region. Asians do not want the U.S. to threaten China—a great-power confrontation would deflect attention from Asia's priority, which is its steady building of prosperity. But a U.S. that balances China's power, that hugs China so tightly that it can't wave its arms around menacingly—that would suit the rest of Asia just fine. China, for its part, knows that it has to deal with the U.S. Much though Beijing may dream of a multipolar world, in which Washington is checked by others, its leaders are surely realistic about that possibility. A recent effort to get the European Union to start selling arms to China failed when the E.U. reaffirmed its ban on the sales. Beijing may resent Washington's demands that it pressure North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, but, at bottom, there is a commonality of interest between the two giants on Korean matters. A nuclear-armed Pyongyang would be at least as much of a threat to China as to the U.S.
This doesn't mean that China and the U.S. will always agree. Bush will no doubt ask Hu to revalue the renminbi, China's currency, so as to increase the price of Chinese exports and reduce the U.S.'s huge trade deficit with China. At last year's APEC meeting, Hu gently deflected such requests, praising the virtues of stability (quite his favorite word) in currency markets. Conceivably, Bush will not be sent away empty-handed this time. But though predicting currency movements is the quickest way to lose both your shirt and your reputation, I would guess that if there is any upward revaluation of the renminbi over the next year—and note the "if"—it will only be by about 5%. The revaluation of 20% or more for which I have heard some American industrialists call is the stuff of dreamworlds.
As ever, the issue on which there is the greatest risk of misunderstanding between Bush and Hu is Taiwan. China sees Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian as a "splittist" who is determined to declare formal independence from China; the U.S, while standing by its "one China" policy, is pledged to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan and would likely come to its assistance if it were attacked without provocation. But here, too, there are common interests: neither Washington nor Beijing wants a war. Bush himself has warned Chen not to "unilaterally change the status quo," while U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a recent Asian trip, said that Taiwan was not independent and that the U.S. favored its "peaceful reunification" with China. Perhaps heeding such messages, Chen has spent the past month trying to convince the world that he is anxious for reconciliation with Beijing. When I spoke to him a few weeks ago, Chen pledged that he had a "historic mission" to "normalize cross-strait relations."
So far, the Chinese leaders have tossed Chen's olive branches aside; Chen, they say, simply can't be trusted. There's only one way to find out if that's right. So here's a challenge for the two men of power: If Bush can convince Hu to test Chen's good intentions by restarting talks with Taipei, then history may judge them to be colossi, indeed.