WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH flies to Beijing tomorrow as an ``old friend'' of China. But more significant, Mr. Bush's visit may signal the beginning of a new phase of relations between the United States and China. The challenge for the Bush administration could well be to help define this new stage.
``The agenda which dominated US-Chinese relations for the past 20 years has been completed or is losing relevance,'' says Harry Harding, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``The basic mission for the last two decades has been to normalize relations,'' Professor Harding says. ``Today that is 90 percent completed.''
``The main underpinning of Sino-US relations has been the perceived united front against the common enemy, the Soviet Union,'' Harding adds. ``But as the Soviets seem to be retrenching and moderating their policies, the earlier impetus to subordinate competitive interests is declining. There is even a danger that Beijing or Washington could cooperate with Moscow in a way the other would find a problem.''
US China-watchers generally share this analysis. Most add that the current fabric of Sino-US ties should be strong enough to keep relations on track as they evolve.
President Bush has a personal interest in doing just that. He served as chief of the US Liaison Office in China from 1974 to 1975, before formal diplomatic relations were established.
``When Bush was head of our liaison office, all we could talk about was how to deal with the `hegemonic power [Moscow],''' a senior administration official says. ``But from a situation where the strategic factor was the only one that allowed us to talk, we've moved to one where we have a plethora of factors in the relationship.'' (Bush's last stop: South Korea. Story, P. 8)
Ten years after diplomatic ties were formally established, the US and China have $14 billion in two-way trade. More than 30,000 Chinese study in the US. Bilateral science and technology cooperation is the largest formal program for both countries. US Peace Corps volunteers likely will be working in China later this year.
``The most striking thing,'' says Prof. A. Doak Barnett of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, ``is how very few issues threaten the relationship. We're at a point where most problems are the ones friendly countries have.''
Still, two problems have caused strain since 1987. Chinese missile sales to the Middle East angered Washington, while human rights abuses in Tibet led to US protests which were not welcomed in Beijing. Both issues remain potentially contentious.
Other disagreements exist over Chinese access to US markets, continued US restrictions on military-related high-technology exports to China, investment opportunities for US business in China, and poor Chinese protection of US intellectual property rights. But these are manageable parts of a normal relationship. Continued access to Western know-how and finances gives a development-focused China added reason to maintain good relations with the US.
Even if the strategic aspects of Sino-US ties are declining in relative importance, they remain significant. The US and China recognize the need for stability and a lessening of tensions on the Korean peninsula. They worked in parallel on Afghanistan.
On Cambodia, Washington and Beijing both oppose Vietnamese occupation and support Thailand. They differ on preventing a Khmer Rouge return to power. But US officials say they believe Beijing will continue to adapt its position to allow an international settlement in Cambodia. They credit Chinese pressure on Moscow as a key factor in moving the process forward so rapidly. A well-placed official says Cambodia may be the most interesting topic of conversation during Bush's visit, as the two countries assess where things are and what steps should come next.
The Soviet Union will be high on the agenda, too. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will be in Beijing in May for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years. ``This is for the better,'' the senior official says. ``It's not happening because of a sudden policy reversal, but as part of a long, slow, careful process leading to a clear and understood denouement.'' Besides, he adds, the Chinese know Russia has changed many times in history. This ``will keep the US-China tie important.''
Bush's visit will allow the two sides to compare notes on Soviet developments as well as signal that the Sino-US relationship is healthy even as both parties are improving ties with Moscow.
Bilaterally, United States officials remain concerned about Chinese arms sales and Tibet. Last year, the US and China were able to calm differences over China's sale of long-range missiles to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Top Chinese leaders assured that China would ``act responsibly'' on this issue. But resolving these cases doesn't mean the broader problem of controlling missile proliferation ``will go away,'' cautions the senior US official. ``It's an issue we and the Chinese will have to deal with.''
Respect for human rights in China, particularly in Tibet, will also remain troublesome, a ranking US specialist says. Beginning with major Tibetan protests in 1987 and with harsh Chinese repression, the United States administration has been under pressure from Congress and human rights groups to protest abuses.
United States officials admit this is a difficult problem. But Washington now makes protests on specific incidents and lobbies for Western access to Tibet, while making clear that it is not challenging Chinese sovereignty over that region. Many in Washington see the best solution as a dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama - Tibet's exiled religious leader.
In the longer term, Taiwan and Japan's growing international role will pose challenges. Beijing would like Washington to encourage Taiwan to enter into reunification negotiations with the mainland, officials say, while the US is content to recognizeone China and letting the two Chinese parties work out a solution.
The most serious threat for United States policy, Harding says, will be if the mainland sees the forces of independence coming to the fore in Taiwan and tries to intervene.
On a broader scale, if the Soviet threat continues to fade the US may have to manage a new Beijing-Tokyo-Washington triangle, says Harding. ``As China looks into the next century,'' a top US China-hand says, ``it is wary that Japan may become, de facto, the major political actor in the region. So far, this is just a sense of `but what if,''' this specialist says. ``But the US could face some sticky balancing between China and Japan.''