Washington, 6 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji arrives in Los Angeles today to begin the first visit of a Chinese prime minister to the United States in 15 years.
The visit comes at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are strained on a broad range of fronts -- from China's opposition to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia to American displeasure with China's human rights record, from Beijing's demand to be let into the WTO (World Trade Organization) to Washington's demand that China stop installing missiles facing Taiwan.
American officials say the purpose of the visit is to work on the U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship, but advance commentary in newspapers and among analysts suggests the best hope is for some bridge building across what has become a vast chasm.
A member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota), says President Bill Clinton's 1994 separation of American concerns over human rights from normal trading relations (known as most-favored-nation or MFN) has failed.
In a commentary published in The New York Times this week, Wellstone says the administration's assurances that human rights would improve and trade ties would prosper had proved to be "empty rhetoric." As China's human rights record has continued to deteriorate, he says, there has been little progress on improving trade ties.
The U.S. had hoped that the centerpiece of the Zhu visit would be agreement to China's entry into the WTO, but officials say at most they now only hope for a "framework" agreement. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, after negotiations in Beijing on China's accession to the WTO last week, said there were still major differences between Washington and Beijing.
Zhu will push for U.S. agreement to China's acceptance in the WTO when he meets Thursday with Clinton at the White House. Zhu is considered one of China's most powerful economic officials and has been credited with being a leading reformer.
But he will also have to deflect American criticisms of China's human rights record. U.S. officials say Washington will wait until after Zhu's visit before it introduces a resolution of condemnation at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Geneva, but Wellstone said it is important that Clinton and other administration officials make it clear that the resolution will not be withheld indefinitely.
Zhu is expected to raise another issue at the meeting with Clinton -- Beijing's strong opposition to U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Asia, including Taiwan.
Clouding the atmosphere in Washington are charges that a Taiwan-born scientist stole secret American plans for making small nuclear warheads for China and allegations by a Chinese-born U.S. political fund raiser that he accepted illegal donations of over $200,000 from China's defense ministry to be given secretly to Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.
China has denied both charges, but the allegations have caused the Clinton administration political embarrassment and forced it to take a harder line toward China.
Zhu's visit is for eight days and will take him to six American cities, starting with Los Angeles on the American Pacific coast and including Denver, Chicago, Washington, Boston and New York.
In New York, Zhu will concentrate on meeting with United Nations officials.