BEIJING — In the aftermath of the attacks on New York City and Washington, Chinese are already suggesting that the catastrophe might be a means for greater cooperation between the US and China - two states that have been at recent loggerheads.
It is too early to tell whether President Bush will still travel to China in mid October for a major economic summit in Shanghai. If he does, the meeting could likely turn into a de facto conference on terrorism, analysts say.
China does not see itself directly in the line of fire for international terror groups, but many here say that growing Islamic radicalism in its western regions "could later affect China," as one professor put it.
China shares a border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and borders or is near several Muslim-majority Central Asian states created by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Some of those states are dealing with greater levels of Islamic radicalism.
One Chinese official, reflecting a liberal point of view, told reporters privately yesterday that, "This is an opportunity for Chinese-American relations to improve.
"We feel that the US always regards China as a potential challenger," the official says, "but now perhaps the two sides can cooperate more. We see New York as a way to tell the US, 'We are not enemies, the real enemy is below our border.' Why can't we work on this together?"
In recent years, China has joined with Russia to spearhead a regional group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The group was first designed to monitor stability in post-Soviet Central Asia. But its main purpose in recent years is to monitor and combat Islamic extremism emerging from Afghanistan and some surrounding states.
Last year, for example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which desires a separate Islamic state, led armed attacks against the government, killing 20 soldiers. Clashes with Muslim rebels in Tajikistan claimed more than 50,000 lives by 1997 and led to the legalization of Islamic political parties in 1999.
"The Shanghai forum is more important than many Westerners think," says a European diplomat. "In this part of the world, the group is taken very seriously. Russia and China just signed a friendship treaty [in July], don't forget."
Russia has a special interest in the Islamic question, due in part to its long battle against rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya, a Muslim-dominated region.
"China and Russia have a common interest and security need, they speak the same language on the Islamic extremist question," Ye Zicheng, a professor of international studies at Beijing University. "This is now a new area for cooperation between China and the US. But there is no road map yet on how to do this."
In Beijing, the last day of an international meeting on "China and the World" turned into a talking shop about the attack on the US. Inside a posh ballroom, the issues were the World Trade Organization (which China expects to join in November) and the environment. Outside in the hall, ambassadors and ex-prime ministers talked of the catastrophe.
Speaking of whether President Bush will come to China next month, Zbignew Brezinski, former US National Security adviser, told reporters: "I will be very surprised if Bush did not come. The US and China have mutual interests that have not been voided after this terrorism. The viability of the international system is at stake."
In interviews on the street, in Internet chat rooms, and in private talks with Chinese intellectuals and thinkers, the feeling here is twofold: Most Chinese hope the US will quickly catch and punish those responsible. But they also say the US should conduct "a policy review" of its approach to the Mideast.
"We oppose this cowardly act of terror," says Pan Wei, a Beijing University professor. "We all have relatives in the US and in New York. We understand the American situation. But we also understand the Palestinian situation.
"We feel that US policy in the Mideast doesn't look like fair leadership in the world," he says. "America is the world leader, and it must be fairer, in a sense, than anyone."