As war looms, US talks to China

As storm clouds gather in Iraq and North Korea, the leaders of China and the US will meet this week.

Long, long ago, way back when President Bush took office, many White House advisers said it was China that would be the No. 1 threat to the US.

Now, tomorrow, China's head of state Jiang Zemin arrives in the US, not simply as one among a gathering of world leaders – but to kick back with Mr. Bush at his Texas ranch this Friday. The two will discuss new military relations, terror threats, Iraq, and North Korea's newly alarming nuclear program.

The democratic US and Communist Party-ruled China are not quite "friends." But for reasons of expediency, interest, and circumstance, US-China relations have defrosted significantly – so much so that many experts doubt China will use its UN Security Council veto on US action in Iraq, even if Russia and France do.

In fact, as President Jiang arrives in Chicago tomorrow, one barometer of how much "the world has changed," to use the post-Sept. 11 vernacular, is that the Chinese are now using that language, too.

"The world has changed quite extensively," says a senior Chinese foreign ministry official in briefings on Jiang's trip last week. "We need to work constructively with the US on counter terrorism. We want a healthy, stable relationship with the US."

Far from being a high-profile challenger of US unilateralism on the world stage, as some thought, Beijing is looking past Iraq and adopting a long-term strategy to build its economic and military presence in Asia.

The White House, for its part, is expected to announce the resumption of full military ties with China. High-level contact among officers, naval visits, and invitations to military exercises were suspended during a tense standoff in April 2001 when a Chinese jet collided with a US spy plane in the early months of the Bush administration.

"Military-to-military relations are not normal right now," said the Chinese official. "I think it is in our common interest to get them back where they should be."

For Jiang, the much-sought-after invitation to Crawford adds to his image as a world leader of clout – a status he is reportedly eager to salt away prior to a major party congress in Beijing on Nov. 8 where he may step down as head of state after 12 years.

The brief summit appears light on substance, or "deliverables." Jiang is likely to be agreeable on Iraq and counterterrorism. The US will broaden military ties and perhaps slightly harden a verbal position against Taiwanese independence to mollify Beijing. The US may lift a ban on satellite technology China seeks if Beijing curbs sale of missile parts to third countries.

The US agreed last month to place the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a western China ethnic Uighur Muslim separatist group, on its terrorist list – drawing the ire of human rights groups worried that Beijing will use the designation as an excuse to more broadly suppress Uighurs.

Pragmatically, neither the US nor China is in a position to create much trouble for the other, even if for some reason they wanted to. The US is preoccupied with Iraq, tracking Al Qaeda, and now North Korea's recently revealed secret nuclear program. The Chinese are preoccupied with a major transition next month to a new generation of leaders, something that has completely absorbed Beijing's attention. China is also adjusting to its new membership in the World Trade Organization.

"A 'no-veto' on Iraq doesn't mean China wholeheartedly or sincerely supports the US approach," says Cheng Li, an expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. "But it is not in China's interest to be provocative. China can't appear to be either too supportive, or too critical. For the US, terror is the No. 1 priority. For China is it No. 4 or 5."

Indeed, China is taking a long-term approach to its role in the world – a 10-20 year buildup of military and economic clout in Asia.

Other than the occasional intense bouts of melancholia and pique that US support for Taiwan bring in Beijing, Chinese leaders see little advantage to mixing it up with Washington, or in making grand gestures they are not willing to follow through on.

One example of China's long-term approach is the restructuring evident in its military. Though US hawks have long pointed anxious fingers at China's Army, most military experts and top US brass say China is still not ready for a real military challenge in Asia.

Yet China's Army has been downsizing its manpower, and upgrading its war-fighting strategy in the modern high-tech arena of small rapid-reaction forces. China is also moving quickly to achieve a "blue water" Navy. Chinese naval vessels for the first time last month circumnavigated the globe. A new book by David Shambaugh argues that China will be a formidable military strength in the region within a decade.

Certainly Bush and Jiang will talk about North Korea's admission this month to US officials that it has a secret and illegal enriched-uranium nuclear program.

The main crisis management on North Korea will be between the US, South Korea, and Japan at the Asian Summit in Mexico (APEC summit). But Bush is likely to explore with Jiang what China as a powerful neighbor of North Korea can do about the dangers of a state with radioactive capability that has professed it sees no reason to act within international norms and safeguards.

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