In China, they are celebrating "The Year of the Ox." In the United States, however, we may have already rung in "The Year of China" - a year in which Asian diplomacy will increasingly focus on US-China relations, for better or for worse.
China's year actually began last November, when President Clinton met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines. This helped get the troubled relationship back on track.
The new US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, has a chance to sustain the momentum when she visits Beijing this weekend.
A strategic framework
One can only hope that her discussions will move beyond the perfunctory US admonitions about human rights - where both sides will at best agree to disagree - to a meaningful discussion of areas where misdeeds or miscalculation could derail the fragile relationship and potentially start a new cold (or hot) war.
* Taiwan. Foremost among these are continued differences over Taiwan. Mrs. Albright must assure China that the US remains committed to a "one China" policy, but she must also forcefully reiterate her predecessor's caution that this is "predicated on [China's] pursuit of a peaceful resolution on issues between Taipei and Beijing." She should also stress that the best way to keep the US out of the middle of this "internal Chinese affair" is for Beijing to restart its high-level dialogue with Taipei.
* The South China Sea. Albright should acknowledge and support the Chinese view that the peaceful settlement of the South China Sea territorial disputes is an internal matter to be solved by the various claimants. But she must also stress that the use of force by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the contested territories could derail both Sino-US relations and China's ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors.
* The Senkaku Islands. The still unsettled dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands may also create future problems. While the US has remained largely on the sidelines, America is more than an innocent bystander, given both its security alliance with Japan and its role in placing administration of the islands in Japanese hands. Beijing must understand that Chinese-initiated military action in the Senkakus would cause the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty to be invoked.
* The US-Japan alliance and TMD. Albright should expect to hear Chinese criticism about the "expansion" of the US-Japan alliance and the "destabilizing nature" of US-Japan cooperation on theater missile defense (TMD). She should stress that the alliance has been "reaffirmed," not redefined, and is not antianyone - but propeace and stability. China should be reminded that Japan, like any other nation, has a right to defend itself against long-range missile threats.
* Hong Kong. Albright needs to reiterate the position that the US has an important interest in ensuring a smooth transition when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control on July 1, 1997, under Beijing's "one country, two systems" framework, and in accordance with the 1984 Joint Sino-British Basic Agreement and the 1990 Basic Law.
She should seek concrete assurances that the approximately 35,000 US citizens who reside in Hong Kong can continue to live safely and do business there after reversion, and that US Navy ship visits will continue to be routinely approved.
While it is unrealistic for China's leaders to expect Albright to be sympathetic toward their efforts to roll back reforms instituted under Britain's Hong Kong governor, Christopher Patten, Albright should focus on the importance of China upholding its own previously made promises.
She should dispassionately note that, should Beijing's handling of democracy and free speech advocates in Hong Kong get out of hand, this would would have profound regional consequences, especially vis--vis Taiwan, which would conclude that Beijing has no intention of honoring the "one country, two systems" formula that also serves as the basis for Taiwan-mainland reunification.
Substance, not emotion
It is hard to predict the overall atmospherics of the visit in advance. The Chinese news media have already referred to the secretary as an "obstinate woman," and her interlocutors may be foolish enough to try to test her mettle. In this case, a tough no-nonsense reply is appropriate.
While standing firm, it is important that Albright not be seen as looking for a fight. Instead, she should merely focus on the above core issues that could seriously threaten peace and stability in Asia if mishandled. She must avoid playing up to the US domestic (and congressional) audience and their expectations that she prove her (and America's) toughness over more emotional issues such as human rights.
If not, "The Year of China" will become "The Year of Living Dangerously" for US-PRC relations and for Asian security in general.
* Ralph A. Cossa is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.