US-China Summit: Photo-Op Diplomacy

When Deng Xiaoping arrived in the United States in January 1979, he became the first high-level Chinese Communist leader to ever come to America.

Deng's visit, best remembered by the image of the exuberant Chinese leader waving a ten-gallon hat from a stagecoach at a Texas rodeo, was regarded as a complete success and a milestone in US.-Chinese relations.

When President Jiang Zemin sat down with President Clinton yesterday, the two leaders made the most important attempt to mend US-Chinese relations since the 1989 incident in Tiananmen Square. But don't be mistaken: This summit is more for the photographers than the policymakers.

While there is no shortage of issues between the two countries that merit discussion, this summit is not a particularly substantive event. US-Chinese summits are so rare a diplomatic occasion, ceremony has trumped substance. But, given the downward trend in bilateral relations in the last several years, a little ceremony may be the next best thing. Photo-op summits are probably better than no summits at all.

For Jiang, his seven-city tour of the US is particularly important.

It is the first opportunity for the apparatchik to put a human face on Chinese communism.

At first glance, it seems dubious that Jiang has what it takes to conduct a successful public relations campaign in the US. But don't be too sure; he prepared for this trip for months and spokesmen from the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicated that Americans should expect a "charm offensive."

How could the usually stiff Chinese president with thick lenses and dyed hair get American audiences to warm up to him?

First, he has supposedly put away his TelePrompTer and recently undergone American-style media training to prepare for public appearances. In an apparent sign of confidence, Jiang has taken the uncharacteristic move of agreeing to at least two unscripted press appearances while here.

Second, unbeknown to most Americans, Jiang is an avid singer. In fact, last year while on a visit to the Philippines, Jiang sang a duet - Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" - with President Fidel Ramos.

While Jiang showed a little verve playing "Aloha Oe" earlier this week in Honolulu, it may be a preview of coming attractions. Whether it has its intended effect, the leader of the world's most populous country wants to show his lighter side.

The Clinton administration will claim some small summit successes in its efforts to: gain Jiang's signature on the UN Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; end Chinese sales of anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran; and to certify that China has stopped exporting nuclear-weapons-related material.

Furthermore, if past behavior is any guide, China may still release a handful of dissidents in a limited attempt to quell American protesters during Jiang's stay.

Nevertheless, a summit's success is measured against expectations. And for this reason, the Clinton administration was wise to keep expectations fairly modest.

The biggest danger is that this week's summit is being viewed as an end in itself rather than an ongoing process. The US's relationship with China is likely to be the single most important for the next century. If these summits are to get beyond the ceremony of making introductions, they must become routine.

Summits between the US and China should not be spectacular events held once a decade.

During the height of the cold war, summits between Washington and Moscow were nearly a constant feature in our diplomacy, and, unlike with Beijing, there was virtually no common ground between us and the "Evil Empire."

US-Chinese relations deserve no less. Hence, the Clinton administration should announce the date when President Clinton will travel to China for a second summit.

This announcement is the only way for the relationship to become enduring and less vulnerable to the inevitable differences that will occur.

It is also our best chance of making US-Chinese summits more a matter for policymakers than photographers.

* William J. Dobson is associate editor at Foreign Affairs.

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