Clinton to China: Delicate Work

As countries gear up for summit, many tough issues are waiting on the table.

At 9:51 a.m. on Memorial Day, as the world recoiled from India's nuclear tests, President Clinton picked up the new "hot line" connecting the White House with Beijing for the first time.

Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, working late, joined Mr. Clinton for a 40-minute dialogue on South Asia in the first direct phone link ever between an American president and a Chinese Communist Party chief.

Such a call would have been unthinkable just two years ago. In March 1996, China was lobbing missiles near Taiwan to intimidate the island's more assertively independent leadership. Washington intervened by dispatching two battle groups to the region and threatening "grave consequences," despite Beijing's earlier warnings that it could retaliate with a nuclear strike on Los Angeles.

The two crises offer sharply contrasting snapshots of US-China relations: one marked by cooperation on vital mutual interests, the other marred by armed provocations and threats.

As Clinton prepares for a nine-day China visit starting June 25 - the first by a US president since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown - these images frame a major debate among decision-makers in both nations. Are China and America destined to become allies, they ask, or adversaries?

The answer, according to senior US officials and China experts, is an unsettling "it depends."

Deep-seated differences and mistrust could again quickly escalate into conflict between the world's most powerful state and its most populous one, they say. After years of neglecting the relationship, Washington must now aggressively use its leverage to avert hostilities and promote shared interests. China today does not pose a significant military or economic threat to US security, analysts stress. Hampered by a backward infrastructure, unwieldy bureaucracy, and outmoded state-run industries, China's economic strength by many measures is far behind America's.

"By any definition, China's industrial and technical base lags dramatically behind that of the United States," says Jonathan Pollack, a senior China specialist at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

China's military is likely to remain technologically inferior for many years. "The Chinese are decades away from developing a serious power projection capability, with the exception of their existing ballistic cruise-missile program," says a Pentagon official.

Moreover, Beijing's traditional, overarching concern with domestic political stability and sovereignty means that, beyond its periphery, it is unlikely to provoke conflict with the United States, according to Michael Swaine, a Rand expert on Chinese military strategy. "China's mind-set is not offensive. It is still highly defensive," he says.

Nevertheless, the anticipated rapid growth of China's power and wealth as the world's largest economy in the next century will inevitably impact US interests, especially in Asia, experts say.

"There is a growing list of issues of concern to the United States that can't be discussed without China's cooperation," says Chas Freeman, a former senior Pentagon official and US diplomat in Beijing.

Unlike a decade ago, Washington today feels compelled to consult closely with Beijing on problems such as Korean reunification, the nuclear rivalry on the subcontinent, and the Asian financial crisis. Indeed, US Treasury officials now talk with their Chinese counterparts each week, according to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

As China gains strength and influence, experts say it is essential for Washington and Beijing to skillfully handle differences that emerge along with these new power dynamics. "The major issue is one of psychological adjustment," says Mr. Freeman. "Can the US deal with China as an equal? And can China deal with dignity with its own status as it becomes more equal?"

Chilled relations

Yet for most of the 1990s, say experts from across the political spectrum, US-China relations stagnated as a result of the chill from Tiananmen, a succession struggle in Beijing, and the lack of a coherent Clinton administration policy in the post-cold-war era.

"You basically had an intellectual and political vacuum" in US China policy, says Richard Haass, of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

After the fall of the Soviet Union ended the strategic rationale for US-China ties, interest groups and ideologues - many harshly critical of China - stepped into the void.

China, meanwhile, experienced a rise in nationalism and anti-American sentiment fueled by the propaganda of an insecure leadership. Beijing accused Washington of seeking to "contain" China, while Chinese military leaders described America as their No. 1 adversary.

"People in both societies are suffering from enemy deprivation," observes Freeman.

Miscalculation and animosity culminated in the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, which thrust relations to a 35-year low point. A sobering display of the price of neglect, the incident spurred a renewal of high-level contacts as well as a badly needed articulation of the US strategy of "engagement," experts say.

"We have finally begun to figure out how to deal with China," says James Lilley, a US ambassador to Beijing under President Bush and a critic of the early years of Clinton's China policy.

The chief aim of engagement is to bring a stable, open, and peaceful China into the international order as a "constructive strategic partner" - a team player. "We want to encourage China to be a status quo country rather than a revisionist power," explains Mr. Haass.

The most important means of engagement are regular summits and a sustained dialogue between Beijing and Washington not interrupted by disputes. While in China, Clinton is expected to formally invite Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to visit the United States.

Yet despite efforts to promote partnership, both nations still harbor strong suspicions.

Chinese fears of a US-led containment strategy remain widespread. Some Chinese officials believe Washington knew in advance about the Indian nuclear tests but turned a blind eye in order to increase pressure on China's flank, says Bates Gill, of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies.

As a result, China seeks to project an image of greater strength by modernizing its military with longer-range aircraft, a blue-water naval capability, and multiple-warhead nuclear missiles. Washington, meanwhile, has ongoing concerns about Chinese weapons proliferation, as well as its acquisition and development of advanced military technology.

Partly as a result of the Taiwan stand-off in 1996, the US military is developing a theater missile-defense system in Asia to guard against - among other things - Chinese missile attacks. Beijing vehemently opposes the system.

"China is not a threat. It's not an enemy. But it's not an ally. The future of China is uncertain... we have to take into account," says the Pentagon official.

Sweet and Sour Agenda Items

This week's summit between the US and China will reflect the strategic priorities of both countries, as well as conflicts of interest:

* This week's summit between the US and China will reflect the strategic priorities of both countries, as well as conflicts of interest:

* Nonproliferation and Arms Control. China has not yet bowed to US pressure to join the Missile Technology Control Regime because Washington has not agreed to Beijing's demand to curtail arms sales to Taiwan. However, Beijing is likely to tighten its controls on missile exports. Ongoing talks on detargeting nuclear missiles have not led to an agreement so far because Beijing also seeks a no-first-use accord, which Washington rejects.

* Military Ties. Agreement is expected on a joint military "table top" exercise in disaster relief as a further step to increase transparency between the two forces.

* Human Rights. In response to US urging, China is likely to release more political prisoners and sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights shortly before or after the summit.

* Trade. Washington wants Beijing to commit to greater market opening and economic reform prior to settling on a plan for China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). But Chinese leaders, worried about domestic unemployment and slowed growth resulting from Asia's financial downturn, are moving cautiously.

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