BOULDER, COLO. AND BEIJING — Following a volatile year that brought US-China relations to a low ebb, President Bush heads to Beijing this week in an attempt to put the relationship on a more productive path. Failure to do so could have disastrous results. A minor incident involving Taiwan, for instance, could easily escalate to military conflict. But there couldn't be a better time to anchor fragile ties between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous.
Just nine months ago, the downing of a US spy plane sank relations to a low not seen since 1996, when China lobbed "test" missiles near Taiwan. But then the events of Sept. 11 brought Washington and Beijing back together to fight against terrorism.
During the 1970s and '80s, that kind of volatility was uncommon: Relations were anchored by a common opposition to the Soviet Union. But the end of the cold war broke the ship of US-China relations adrift. It has since swung back and forth on the tides of each nation's domestic politics.
The current rapprochement remains vulnerable. Chinese security analysts are anxious that the US not exploit the campaign against terrorism to encircle China. Meanwhile, Americans worry that Beijing is using "terrorism" as an excuse to violate human rights of Muslims in northwest China.
As a first step, Mr. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin must convince their peoples that, although problems inevitably arise, common interests demand that the US and China maintain strong relations.
Second, both Beijing and Washington need to tone down their rhetoric. America is not an "imperialist aggressor," and China is not a "totalitarian tyrant." Relations among nations involve emotions and are not determined by power alone. Inflammatory words only undermine trust - already scarce - and have made one thing certain: Both sides' military establishments now talk of preparing for an eventual showdown.
Third, while President Clinton's vision of a "strategic partnership" with China had its limits, it did make Washington and Beijing willing to forge a constructive relationship. By contrast, Bush's now-abandoned idea of China as "strategic competitor" proved counterproductive.
Bush arouses Chinese suspicions by depicting China as out to upset the global balance of power and by driving for a missile defense system that might make China's missiles useless. Beijing, for its part, should accept constructive critiques of official corruption, violations of human rights, and environmental problems as well intentioned - and not as plots to humiliate China.
Fortunately, working together to fight terror is an opportunity for Washington and Beijing to reassure one another about their strategic intentions - both in Central Asia and more broadly. Further cementing relations with annual high-level defense and diplomatic exchanges, for instance, would build trust and help buffer the relationship against random shocks.
US-China relations were given a boost last year when the 2008 Olympics was awarded to Beijing and China entered the World Trade Organization. Beijing should be quietly told that the US sees the Olympics and WTO entry not only as a sign that the world wants China to play a prominent role in global affairs, but also as an opportunity for China to show the world that it's building a more open society.
China is not going to end its one-party system any time soon. But Bush should let Mr. Jiang know that the US believes China will benefit from political reform. Only then will Beijing have more than just hospitality to show the world in 2008.
Peter Hays Gries is assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Shiping Tang is assistant fellow at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. They are co-directors of the Sino-American Security Dialogue.