China recently issued a report expressing concern about the U.S. military presence in the Pacific Ocean, and it described as "grim" the security situation in the strait that separates China and Taiwan -- an island Beijing calls a "renegade province."
But some observers say such differences are not the reason Rumsfeld is interested in visiting China.
James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China, tells RFE/RL that Rumsfeld has avoided such trips until now because he feels the Chinese tend to get more out of the bilateral relationship than the Americans do.
"[Chinese officials] come over here, and we show them a great deal," Lilley says. "We go over there, and we see almost nothing. And Rumsfeld says, 'This is not the way to do business. It isn't a series of banquets in which toasts are made and nothing is done.' He wants to go over there and say, 'What are we going to do specifically to advance this relationship? What are we going to do, let's say, about counterterrorism? How do we avoid another Hainan incident?' He doesn't want to be waltzed around, which is [the Chinese] tendency."
According to Lilley, Rumsfeld evidently now believes his meetings with the Chinese will be more constructive and less social.
Lilley also notes that the Pentagon has expressed concern about the recent Chinese report on the U.S. presence in the Pacific and its critical statements about Taiwan. But he says observers should be careful not to interpret it as a sign of impending crisis.
"Yes, there's been a slight escalation of purple prose in their white paper (government report)," Lilley says. "The Chinese have an old expression: 'Words surpass reality.' Words are part of the great game. I don't mean I dismiss their concerns about Taiwan. I'm just saying, don't go after the latest swearing match that came out of Beijing and take that as their new position."
Rumsfeld's announced plans come at a time of increased complications -- and even "contradictions," as Lilley calls them -- in the relations between China and the United States.
On the one hand, China has released details of the cases of 56 prisoners it holds -- some political prisoners, some accused spies. The move is seen as a way to improve Beijing's reputation on human rights in advance of next month's meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
The United States is considering whether to demand that the commission pass a resolution criticizing China. The State Department says it has seen the document on the Chinese prisoners, but had no comment on it. It also says Washington has not yet decided whether to press for the resolution on China.
At the same time, a bipartisan group from the U.S. House of Representatives is introducing a bill that would repeal the Permanent Normal Trade Relations status (PNTR) that Congress granted China in 2000. Until then, China had what was called "most favored nation" status, which Congress had to renew each year, usually after bitter debate.
In announcing the new proposal yesterday, the House members noted that trade with China accounts for nearly one-quarter of the $600 billion U.S. trade deficit. They also said it leaves many Americans unemployed and that to preserve good trade relations with China, U.S. officials ignore Chinese piracy of U.S. intellectual property.
One of the measure's sponsors, Representative Peter DeFazio, said he hopes his colleagues in Congress restore trade fairness.
"American workers cannot -- and should not have to -- compete with a country (China) that allows companies, many with government sanction, to pirate our goods and violate international trade agreements," DeFazio says. "So it's time that we applied pressure back on China, and the way we could do that is to go back to an annual discussion in Congress and an authorization -- or a denial -- of favored nation status."
Lilley agrees the United States cannot simply let China take advantage of trade imbalances, but he says repealing PNTR -- or even threatening it -- is the wrong approach.
"The only way you're going to get progress on trade is to make it hurt for them more to do one thing than another," Lilley says. "If you have tantrums, if you do threats, the past record is: It doesn't work very well. Taking away permanent normal trading relations could be considered a shot across their bow. But the Chinese know you aren't going to deliver on it because the American business community would be up in arms."
In pressing for PNTR, and for admitting China into the World Trade Organization, the administration of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, argued that these moves would force China to do business under strict rules that likely would have influence on other aspects of its civic life, including human rights.
Lilley says pressing China to obey these rules would be the best way for Washington to confront China on trade issues.