Clinton Puts a Smile On China's Face

No one issue will 'torpedo' ties, officials say

In glowing terms, senior Chinese officials say high-level talks with the US have marked a major turning point in Sino-US ties.

The rapprochement could lay the groundwork for the restoration of contacts to a degree unseen in nearly a decade, they say.

Despite ongoing disputes over human rights, Taiwan, weapons proliferation, and trade, "Sino-US relations are the best they have been since 1989," says a Chinese official.

"Although no major agreements have yet been unveiled, the two countries are rebuilding the foundations of their relationship," he said on condition of anonymity.

The consensus among Chinese leaders of a sea change in US-China ties contrasts with the more cautious optimism voiced by President Clinton, who is apparently downplaying progress in recent talks to deflect criticism of his new China policy.

Images of the Chinese military's march on Tiananmen Square in June 1989, broadcast live on television throughout the United States, were like a freeze-frame that for seven years blocked any views of the significant and sweeping changes that have taken place in China.

Partially frozen ties aimed at punishing Beijing also had the effect of limiting Washington's influence on China, and American policymakers in recent months have decided instead to employ constructive engagement to reinforce positive trends in China.

Clinton and Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin met in Manila earlier this week, when they agreed to visit each other's capital within two years and to take other steps aimed at building on the two sides' economic complementarity while reducing tensions in areas of conflict.

CLINTON stressed during the summit "the importance of working together," said a senior US official following the Nov. 25 meeting. "The Chinese side knew they were engaged with a leader that has enormous respect for China and wants to see China take its place in the world of democratic, peace-loving nations as the great power that China is destined to be."

Talks in Beijing and in Manila in the past two weeks have the potential to produce a number of breakthroughs, say high-level American and Chinese officials.

China has agreed to adhere to various arms-control pacts and to use its influence to persuade North Korea to join four-party peace talks while Washington has promised to speed up negotiations over China joining the World Trade Organization.

When the US proposed that the two Pacific Rim titans publicly declare that their nuclear missiles were not targeted at the other side, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen welcomed the move. He also said he had accepted the administration's invitation to visit Washington next year to meet the successor to Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Washington and Beijing also agreed to step up consultations on issues that caused bilateral relations to plummet during much of Clinton's first term: US sales of sophisticated arms to Taiwan and China's human rights policies.

Immediately following his meeting with Mr. Jiang, Clinton came under fire from US-based rights groups for having adopted a less-confrontational stance.

"We share the concern of these groups....," says Under Secretary of State Winston Lord. He adds, however, that "we believe that regular high-level dialogue is the most effective way to make progress on these issues," and says that the US would no longer allow conflict on one topic to torpedo the entire relationship.

Ezra Vogel, a widely respected China scholar at Harvard University, gave strong backing to the Clinton administration's new approach. "Public confrontation has been a real failure in bringing about change in China," he said.

China, which regards public, bellicose criticism of its treatment of political dissidents as interference in its sovereign affairs, recently sentenced former student leader Wang Dan to 11 years in prison. Mr. Wang had written articles mildly critical of the Communist Party and signed a petition calling for the release of all those imprisoned for having peacefully expressed divergent political views. Several days after Wang's sentencing, however, Beijing quietly freed prominent dissident Chen Ziming on medical parole. Wang, too, is unwell and his parents have pleaded for emergency medical care. China hasn't yet said whether it would allow Wang to go to the US for treatment.

American officials say they are awaiting a positive response from China on Clinton's toned-down approach to contentious issues.

Robert Ross, an associate at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, says the US should also move to "rebuild trust on the Taiwan issue." China has repeatedly called for the US to halt delivery of advanced jet fighters sold to Taiwan by the Bush administration.

Both US and Chinese officials hint that negotiations behind closed doors are continuing. "The progress and understandings announced following the [Clinton-Jiang] summit were only the tip of the iceberg as far as the extent of the talks and their potential," says one Chinese official. "The results ... will only emerge gradually over the next two years...."

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