A 10-day visit to the US by China's top military commander, Gen. Chi Haotian, may be the best example yet of President Clinton's shift to smoother ties with Asia's emerging giant.
Rather than berating or ignoring the military leader who oversaw the killing of protesters in the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Washington is giving General Chi the red-carpet treatment, although with a subtle message.
On the surface, his trip reciprocates the treatment Defense Secretary William Perry received during a 1994 trip to China. And it is designed to set an upbeat tone for discussions on building ties and trust between the US and Chinese militaries and for frank talk on tension-fueling issues such as China's human rights abuses and its sales of military technologies to Iran and Pakistan.
"We don't agree on all topics," explains Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. "But together we think we have a better chance of maintaining the type of stability we have achieved in Asia through a full dialogue with China."
There is, however, a subtle side to the agenda arranged for Chi and his delegation.
The tours of military bases and industries and of the Sandia National Laboratories, a weapons development facility in Albuquerque, NM, will showcase some of the military might China would face should it spurn dialogue with the US and risk the kind of showdown into which the Taiwan standoff could have deteriorated last March. In that incident, China held war games and fired missiles off Taiwan just before an election on the island, and in response, the US dispatched two American aircraft carriers to the area.
Asserts a senior US defense official: "We'd like for them to gain a better appreciation for really what is the most formidable armed forces in the world."
Chi is only the third Chinese defense minister to come to the US since the 1949 Communist takeover of China. His visit was postponed twice by disputes over Taiwan. It follows a series of recent fence-mending trips to China by senior US officials that culminated in talks earlier this month in Manila between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in which they agreed to an exchange of summits.
The new US attitude stands in stark contrast to the icy relations that had prevailed since the Tiananmen Square slaughter. Clinton's first term saw feuds over China's abysmal human rights record, sales of conventional and nuclear-related military technologies, and piracy of American films, music and software. The most serious dispute has been over US support for Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province.
Pressed by US firms hungry to invest in China and hoping to avert a cold-war-style rivalry that could unsettle Asia, the administration is now pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement." It advocates cooperation with Beijing on issues of mutual interest and quiet dialogue, instead of open confrontation, on those in dispute. Critics deride the approach as appeasement and a betrayal of the tenets of democracy and human rights. Administration officials respond that through such a policy, China can be weaned away from its objectionable behavior and into the global mainstream.
More contact, less friction?
Officials and some independent experts say that expanding contacts between the US military and the People's Liberation Army is essential to improving overall Sino-US relations and dispelling misunderstandings that could inadvertently lead to hostilities in East Asia, where the US has almost 100,000 troops.
"Security issues are really central to this relationship and will increasingly be so in the future," says Michael Swain, an analyst at the RAND Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif. "The Chinese military needs to be involved in the dialogue."
As first steps, US officials are proposing confidence-building measures such as exchanges of officers, regular meetings between senior military leaders and contacts between the Chinese military and US forces in the East Asia region.
In what they hail as progress, officials say Chi has agreed that US warships can continue paying recreational visits to Hong Kong after the British colony reverts to Chinese rule next year.
Some experts, however, say such measures can go only so far. The US refusal to end support for Taiwan, including arms sales, and its attempts to influence China's foreign and defense policies will inevitably limit progress on improving relations, they say.
"It's always better to be talking with potential adversaries," says Dan Smith, a former Army intelligence officer who is associate director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Defense Analysis. "But if we think we are going to influence China's military in terms of suggesting to them that they should not expand or be aggressive, I don't think that is going to work. They are too big. They are the power on the Asian continent."