BEIJING — Two months before China's president is due to visit America, officials on both sides are working hard to create the appearance, if not the reality, of harmony between the transpacific giants.
One example is praise for China from high-level US officials. On a visit to Beijing last week. Washington's envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Bill Richardson, said China's help in bringing North Korea into peace talks is part of Beijing's drive to become a stronger and more responsible player on the world stage. "China has played a very constructive role," Mr. Richardson said in an interview.
Nudging North Korea into pursuing peace has not been easy for China. The two cold-war allies fought the American-led coalition arm-in-arm in the 1950-53 Korean War. But Beijing's two-decade-long shift from backing revolution to seeking trade and stability has made it a much more pacifist force on the global stage.
"North Korea's behavior is erratic - you never know where they're heading next," says Richardson. In contrast, he adds, "China takes a pragmatic world view on a lot of peacekeeping and other issues."
Richardson and other US officials here described their hosts at China's Foreign Ministry as friendly and upbeat about Sino-American ties in the run-up to a summit scheduled for late October. Chinese President Jiang Zemin is slated to meet with President Clinton in the first state visit to the US since the China's Army cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
The summit also comes six months after the passing of Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who appointed Mr. Jiang to head the Communist Party on the eve of the Tiananmen Square assault. Jiang is eager to use the summit to bolster his image, and Chinese officials are anxious that the visit goes well.
All this prep work for the summit is in sharp contrast with US-China relations during Mr. Clinton's first term, when disputes on China's human rights abuses and US arms sales to Taiwan kept the nations growling at each other.
While some US officials are painting China's rapid economic growth and rise as a world power as a threat to Washington and the West, many others say that image is false. "Sitting on the East Coast of the US, you get the impression of China as a hugely aggressive, powerful country, but when you come here, you see they are still struggling with development problems," says one high-level US administration official, who asked not to be identified.
"I see a country groping to define its future and its role on the world stage ... a strong country that seems to want to become more market-oriented and, perhaps, democratic," says another senior US official.
Yet, he adds, human rights issues, especially China's imprisonment of peaceful backers of political reform, remain the main stumbling block to a full-fledged rapprochement between Washington and Beijing eight years after the Tiananmen crackdown.
He adds that the US policy of "constructive engagement" with Beijing is bearing fruit in a wide range of other areas, especially in China's role as peacemaker with its unpredictable ally North Korea.