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China: Bush Hopes To Scale 'Great Wall' In Relations With Beijing

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush caps a three-nation tour of Asia tomorrow with a summit in Beijing with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. While relations between the two countries have warmed recently, deep differences separate the world's sole superpower from its most populous nation.

Washington, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- President Bush will seek to put U.S.-China ties on the right track when he arrives in Beijing tomorrow on the last leg of an Asian tour.

Fresh from stops in Tokyo and Seoul, Bush will face a tangle of thorny issues -- Washington's plans for a missile-defense system, nuclear nonproliferation, and the controversial question of Taiwan -- when Chinese President Jiang Zemin welcomes him on 21 February. Bush's visit comes exactly 30 years after former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic meeting with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung.

Bush will get a chance to directly address the Chinese people during a live televised news conference. It is not known whether Bush will use the appearance to bring up concerns over Beijing's human rights record, but Minxin Pei -- an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank -- recently told a public forum that Bush must make the best of this opportunity.

"I think this summit could provide President Bush a very rare opportunity to address the Chinese people," Minxin said.

While no major agreements are expected from the two-day summit, analysts say the visit provides a chance for both sides to build on relations that have gone from potentially explosive a year ago to almost friendly after the 11 September attacks on America.

Despite deep differences, Washington and Beijing have forged strong economic ties in recent years, with the U.S. looking the other way while China racked up a $50 billion trade surplus in its favor. The U.S. also backed China's recent successful bid to join the World Trade Organization -- and talking business will be a big part of Bush's stay.

Still, Bush came into office with a decidedly colder approach to Beijing than former President Bill Clinton, who took great pains to engage China's leadership despite strong reluctance in Washington toward improving relations with a government many accuse of major human rights abuses.

But after a series of spats in 2001 turned bilateral relations sour -- highlighted by the collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet off China's southern coast -- tensions have eased, partly because of China's support for the American-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Chinese officials say they face internal threats from Islamic extremists and also have an interest in combating terrorism.

The Bush approach has been called a "sweet and sour" policy -- a mix of frank self-interest and principle. Analyst Minxin said Bush used to see China as a "strategic competitor" but now wants what he called a "candid cooperative relationship."

"I think that word ["candid"] is very, very significant because it implies the Bush administration's determination to pursue American interests, even at the expense of doing away with niceties in diplomatic language," Minxin said.

Bush, who first visited Beijing in the 1970s when his father was U.S. ambassador to China, also will get a chance to get a look at China's future leadership. Jiang is due to be replaced within a year both as president and Communist Party chairman. China experts will be watching to see if Bush meets with Hu Jintao, the 59-year-old who is expected to succeed Jiang.

Still, a gulf of conflicting interests separates the world's sole superpower from its most populous country. And in Tokyo this week, Bush showed no sign of toning down his rhetoric ahead of his China trip. Instead, he told Japan's parliament that America will continue to assert its power in Asia and will stand up to terrorists and so-called "rogue states," including North Korea, a Chinese ally that Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil" that also includes Iran and Iraq.

Perhaps most significantly, Bush did not refrain from reiterating U.S. support for Taiwan -- the most contentious issue in the U.S.-China relationship. In words hailed as significant by Taiwanese leaders, Bush told Tokyo's lawmakers that the U.S. sees Taiwan as a good friend with admirable democratic achievements.

More broadly, Bush added: "We stand more committed than ever to a forward presence in this region. We will continue to show American power and purpose in support of the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand. We will deter aggression against the Republic of Korea [South Korea]. Together, Japan and the United States will strengthen our ties of security. America will remember our commitments to the people on Taiwan."

However, some analysts warn that Bush must avoid appearing to tilt too clearly toward Taiwan's side, while not allowing China to entertain the idea of military action against what it calls a "breakaway" island whose security is dependent on an American military presence in the region, as well as on American arms supplies.

But far from scaling back his rhetoric, Bush appeared to use his Tokyo speech to hammer home to Beijing a message of American determination. As for human rights -- a perennial thorn in Sino-American ties -- the Bush team made it clear recently that he will press China to ease up on religious oppression and improve legal rights.

Bush told Tokyo's lawmakers: "China will find that America speaks for the universal values that gave our nation birth: The rule of law, the freedom of conscience and religion, and the rights and dignity of every life."

And on the missile-defense system the U.S. hopes to build, despite Chinese and Russian objections, Bush said: "To help protect the people of this region, and our friends and allies in every region, we will press on with an effective program of missile defenses."

As for nuclear nonproliferation, Michael Swaine, also an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said that China has made progress, even though Bush should press Jiang on clamping down on "dual-use exports" -- products that also can be used for nuclear weapons or missiles -- to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

Swaine added that China feels particularly threatened by an American missile-defense system, since in theory it could neutralize Beijing's limited capacity to strike U.S. targets with long-range missiles while giving Washington first-strike ability.

Beijing is also worried that a "theater" missile-defense system provided to Taiwan could reduce its military leverage against the island, as well as strengthen the U.S.-Taiwanese security relationship.

Swaine said Bush's biggest challenge will be to find a way to improve links between Taiwan and Beijing while not igniting Chinese anger over the island. And Bush must also reassure Beijing that a U.S. missile-defense system is not intended as a military deterrent against China.

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