Gore Walks a Tightrope as He 'Engages' China

Amid a war of words between hard-liners in Beijing and Washington over the dangers of closer Sino-America ties, Vice President Al Gore called for more partnership during his talks here with China's leaders.

Ignoring calls in the United States that China represents an emerging military threat in Asia or that it should be isolated due to its human rights policies, Mr. Gore said the Clinton administration wanted to "strengthen and broaden" ties with Beijing.

Halfway through his four-day visit to China, and despite an ongoing US Justice Department probe into accusations that Beijing funnelled campaign funds to US legislators, Gore focused on the broad strategic security and trade interests the two sides have in common.

His trip marked the highest-level visit of a US official since the Chinese military's crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1989 damaged Sino-American ties.

He said that his talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on human rights, trade, and weapons proliferation had been "productive, friendly, searching, and, above all, wide-ranging."

The trip confirms that "the Clinton administration is trying to integrate China into the international community," says Harry Harding, a scholar at George Washington University in the US capital.

"While that involves recognizing China as a growing power, it also obligates Beijing to follow international rules," he says.

Balancing engagement with China and criticism of its shortcomings in the human rights arena, however, has seemed to place the US administration on a political and diplomatic tightrope. Gore came at the invitation of Premier Li Peng, who in May 1989 signed a martial-law decree that set the stage for Operation Tiananmen.

The White House has come under attack at home from liberals who focus on China's treatment of dissidents, Harding says, and also from conservatives "over whether China seeks to expand its influence in Asia."

Joseph Nye, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., agrees with that assessment, and warns those who seek to contain China: "Once you treat China as an enemy, it will become an enemy."

"The US should engage in a constructive dialogue with China ... to achieve one of the better alternative futures" possible in the 21st century," Mr. Nye said Tuesday at a informal talk in Beijing.

He added, though, that improved ties were now in danger due in part to "some hysteria in the US media" over China's political system, its potential military might, and its alleged attempts to buy influence with US politicians.

In a meeting with reporters yesterday, Gore said that Premier Li had denied any involvement in China's channeling of funds into Washington's corridors of power. The issue, which has hung over the Gore visit like a dark cloud, still has the potential to wash out US efforts to "engage" China.

"Despite all the difficulties in our relationship, we believe that wider communication with the US is the most logical way to solve the existing problems," says a senior Chinese official in Beijing.

While the state-run press has blasted reports in the US of China's alleged contributions, it has welcomed Gore's visit and his efforts to improve ties.

And while the trip represented the restoration of ties to a degree unseen since 1989, Gore attempted to diplomatically duck a question over whether Li - the figure most closely associated with the Tiananmen crackdown - might be invited to the US soon.

"Well, he's already visited the United States ... and, ah, he is term-limited and his term is up, I believe, shortly after the turn of the year," Gore said. "I'm not an expert on Chinese constitutional law, but it's my understanding there will be a new premier sometime early next year."

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