Graceful Go-Between Oversaw Historic Shift in US-China Ties

US ambassador James Sasser proves deft at easing strains, explaining Congress.

Considering the US and Chinese militaries may have been on the brink of an armed clash 2-1/2 years ago, it might seem strange to predict the two Pacific Rim titans are likely to become 21st-century partners.

Yet the US ambassador to China, James Sasser, says he's optimistic about the strengthening friendship between the West's strongest democracy and the East's emerging economic superpower.

Both Chinese and American officials say Ambassador Sasser has been a central force behind the rapprochement in the past two years.

The former senator from Tennessee, with his Southern grace and down-to-earth style, has forged a rapport here with everyone from US business leaders to the Chinese president.

Sasser's forecast of a warming China-US partnership would have been unimaginable when he took up his Beijing post on the eve of the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.

Beijing, alarmed that American arms sales and burgeoning democracy in Taiwan could combine to spark a declaration of independence by the island, started firing live missiles off Taiwan's coast during its first free presidential elections. China considers Taiwan a renegade province.

Washington responded to Beijing's "missile tests" and simultaneous war games by sending two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, and the Chinese and American militaries engaged in a virtual showdown until China's saber rattling ended."If we weren't careful, there was a danger of getting into a military collision," Sasser says.

Anti-American nationalism rippled out from the Chinese military into the state-run press, which criticized the US as a would-be world hegemonist.

Helping to rebuild ties

Yet the Taiwan Strait brinkmanship became a "catalyst that made people focus, both in Washington and Beijing, on where the relationship was going," Sasser says. The crisis was caused by a breakdown in communications, along with misperceptions and misunderstandings on each side's part, he adds.

During talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin when the ambassador arrived here in Feb. 1996, Sasser says he sensed the potential for a serious improvement in ties and started shuttling between Beijing and Washington to help navigate a course of trans-Pacific partnership.

Since then, a widening web of exchanges has culminated thus far in Mr. Jiang's state visit to the US late last year and President Clinton's reciprocal trip to China in June.

Both Chinese officials and American scholars give Sasser much of the credit for the transformation.

"Sasser has probably been the best American ambassador ever posted here, and his extensive contacts in Washington have helped rebuild US-China ties from the top down," says a Chinese official in Beijing.

An American diplomat agrees. "Sasser is probably one of the few ambassadors in the world who can pick up the phone and call President Clinton or Vice President Gore, and his contacts in Congress are helping to change Washington's perceptions of China."

Officials and scholars on both sides of the Pacific also credit the remarkable turnaround of the last two years to the ambassador's forging a close relationship with Jiang.

"James Sasser probably knows Jiang Zemin better than any other American does, and their personal chemistry has helped pull the two sides through some rough patches in the relationship," adds the US diplomat.

The 'political translator'

Sasser meets often with Jiang, and acts as a "political translator" to help explain the workings of the US government here while outlining Beijing's policies and concerns in Washington.

Before being appointed ambassador, Sasser served in the Senate for 18 years. Washington made a wise decision with Sasser's appointment because the US "needed a political person in Beijing who could [also] deal with Congress," says Ezra Vogel, who heads the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The ambassador says he persuaded more than 100 US congressmen to visit China last year. While the American politicians get a firsthand view of how an emerging middle class and an information revolution are changing China, they can also personally convey ongoing US concerns in cross-Pacific ties.

When US congressmen talk directly with the Chinese president or premier "about human rights or the trade imbalance, China's leadership understands these issues are not just propaganda, that the American people really care about these issues," Sasser says.

Many China-US exchanges were cut off or frozen in 1989, after the Chinese military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, but are now being quickly restored.

Sasser, like many China scholars, says better and broadened ties with the US may be prompting China's leaders to loosen political controls here.

Reform momentum

While the Chinese secret police continue to detain the most outspoken dissidents, the number of arrests and length of prison sentences seem to have been quietly dropping since the US-China rapprochement.

"There is a growing momentum in the direction of not only economic reform, but also, to a lesser extent, political reform," says the ambassador.

"There's disagreement and discussion [within the Chinese leadership] about how far to move ahead with reform," but both the press and liberal scholars have begun pushing the boundaries of the permissible here, he adds.

Sasser says Beijing's halting moves toward political reform could speed up over the following decades. "I think there is an excellent chance China will be a democracy in the future," he says, but cautions that it is "unlikely to be a mirror image of the US."

Regardless of China's political evolution, he says, "the US must learn how to accommodate China's emergence as an economic superpower." Although "China hasn't shown any willingness to become a military superpower," the US must lay the groundwork now for a stable relationship with China into the next century, he says.

The US should help integrate China, which has the world's largest army and fastest growing economy, into global institutions as Beijing becomes a more responsible player.

"China must be allowed to help make the global rules if it agrees to live by them," Sasser adds. "China is emerging on the world stage as a great power, and it is not easy sometimes for established powers to accommodate new powers."

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