When Chinese President Jiang Zemin steps off the plane in Hawaii this weekend, he will end a 12-year-old hiatus in US-China state visits and begin what some analysts view as the most significant Sino-American summit since Richard Nixon's trailblazing China trip in 1972.
For Washington and Beijing, the most immediate goal of Mr. Jiang's Oct. 26 to Nov. 2 visit is to halt a dangerous backsliding in relations dating from June 1989, when China's military crackdown at Tiananmen Square protests left hundreds of citizens dead.
"If the two countries can ... arrest the downward spiral it can be considered a successful summit," says David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in the nation's capital. In recent years, conflicts have flared over China's ongoing human rights violations, nuclear proliferation, tensions with Taiwan, and the burgeoning US trade deficit - which is expected to top $40 billion this year, according to US figures.
Yet Jiang and President Clinton are expected to tackle a more far-reaching challenge during their Oct. 29 White House meeting: to create a new framework to guide relations between the two powers in the post-cold-war world.
Unlike in the 1970s, when Beijing and Washington came together out of a shared hostility for the Soviet Union, no single, driving rationale for improved US-China ties exists today, experts note.
"Before, we could point clearly and unambiguously to a common enemy," observes Harry Harding, dean of international studies at George Washington University. "Today, what holds us together is much less compelling."
In both countries, efforts to redefine the relationship are proving central to global diplomacy.
"The US-China relationship is the battleground on which a lot of the debates over post-cold-war policy are being fought," says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
Yet as high-ranking US and Chinese officials hold last-minute meetings in Beijing to hammer out the summit's final details, broad differences are apparent in the two sides' goals for better Sino-American relations.
What Beijing wants
Chinese leaders stress that Beijing seeks an equal, strategic partnership with the United States. Both countries should "share responsibility for preserving world peace and stability," Jiang told The Washington Post in an interview this week. "We should strive to expand common ground, enhance trust, diminish differences, and join hands to create the future," he said.
Eager to bolster Jiang's stature as a world leader, China appears nearly as interested in the pageantry and symbolism of the state visit - including a welcoming ceremony with a 21-gun salute - as in its substance. "China is looking for a lot of symbolic reassurances," and is concerned about "how Jiang Zemin will be received," says Professor Harding.
Calling for a "new era" in ties, China is also pressing for an end to US policies that it says restrain its rise as a global power, especially in economic and military domains. For example, it seeks a lifting of US trade, nuclear-energy, and military sanctions imposed after Tiananmen and wants the US to drop its objections to Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Washington, for its part, seems less concerned with entering into a partnership with Beijing than with "managing" China's integration into the established world order, experts say. For example, Washington seeks to ensure that China adheres to US or international norms in areas of world trade, weapons nonproliferation, and human rights (including in Tibet and Hong Kong).
The United States also puts a high priority on gaining China's cooperation in preventing regional conflicts, notably on the Korean Peninsula, in Cambodia, and in the Spratley Islands. "Security has to rank near the top if not at the top of the issues in the relationship," says Jeff Bader, director of Asian affairs at the US National Security Council in Washington.
Few analysts, including US officials, predict that Jiang's trip will produce major tangible breakthroughs. "We do not overestimate what can be achieved," says Mr. Bader.
* On trade and economic issues, the United States does not plan to lift most sanctions imposed after Tiananmen, says Nicholas Lardy, a specialist on the Chinese economy at Brookings. However, last-minute negotiations are under way that could lead Clinton to lift a ban (pending congressional approval) on the sale to China of US nuclear reactors and related technology.
As for China's entry to the WTO, "we still have a long way to go," Bader says, with lingering disputes over tariffs, nontariff barriers, and trade in agriculture and services.
* Military sanctions are also expected to remain in place, although exchanges will likely be increased, with a visit to China by the US defense secretary scheduled for next month. A military maritime agreement governing encounters at sea is also expected to be concluded.
* Other minor agreements are planned on pollution abatement and academic and lawyer exchanges.
Although the Jiang-Clinton meeting will last only 90 minutes, Bader stresses that the summit marks a "first step" in a lengthy process of improving ties.
A hot line may be set up for the two leaders, and Clinton plans a return state visit to China in 1998. That, along with more regular Cabinet-level visits, "is inevitably going to lead to a much richer dialogue ... on political security and strategic issues. That is something both sides very much need," Bader says.
JIANG'S STOPS IN US
Oct. 26: Chinese President Jiang stops over in Honolulu.
Oct. 27: Arrives in Williamsburg, Va.
Oct. 28: Tours Colonial Williamsburg.
Oct. 29: Starts official state visit in Washington with welcoming ceremony, diplomatic meetings, and dinner at the White House. Press conference planned.
Oct. 30: Visits Capitol Hill. Travels to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Travels to New York.
Oct. 31: Visits New York Stock Exchange and several corporations, including IBM and AT&T.
Nov. 1: Travels to Cambridge, Mass., for speech at Harvard University. Departs for Los Angeles.
Nov. 2: In Los Angeles, gives speech and visits several corporations, including Hughes Electronics. Departs for China.