Only nine months ago, President Clinton was in China lauding the "vision" and "competence" of Chinese leaders and exuding confidence in a "good positive partnership" with Beijing.
China since then has dashed the president's high hopes on several fronts. Beijing has waged a harsh crackdown on dissidents. It has threatened Taiwan with a missile buildup. Ongoing Chinese espionage targeting US military secrets is compromising American security, officials say. And most recently, Beijing has attacked the US-led NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia as a "barbarity."
As a result, Mr. Clinton greets Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in Washington today amid wide-ranging criticism that his China policy - aimed at building a "constructive strategic partnership" with Beijing - is somewhat fawning and unrealistic. "[To] speak in overly flowery terms as though we were partners or allies is way out of bounds," says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
A new alternative
To be sure, opponents from both ends of the political spectrum have for years castigated the Clinton administration for laxity and appeasement towards Beijing's Communist regime. Yet now, a mainstream alternative to the Clinton policy is emerging in Congress and policymaking circles - one that argues that the US should continue to engage China, but on much tougher terms.
This approach to engagement asserts that the Clinton team has advanced diplomatic relations and large corporate interests in China at the expense of other core interests such as national security and human rights.
Supporters of tougher engagement include both Republicans and Democrats. "We need a constructive and continued dialogue," says Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California, "but the terms of engagement are all-important. The Clinton policy is excessively China-centric."
Representative Cox chairs the House Select Committee investigating US security concerns with China. The committee is expected to release its declassified report outlining Chinese threats to US security as early as later this month.
Indeed, security and proliferation issues top the list of areas where critics say Washington needs to show greater vigilance toward Beijing. Chinese weapons proliferation in Asia and the Middle East "are areas where the administration policy gets an F," Cox says. Such concerns have been heightened by recent evidence that China has since the late 1980s stolen US nuclear weapons designs and used them to improve Chinese missiles. "The magnitude of the losses is unparalleled," says Cox.
"The criticism I have of the administration is not that the Chinese are spying on us, but that there is administration complicity," says Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, who visited China earlier this month and met with Premier Zhu.
China's worsening human-rights situation, highlighted this year in a State Department report, has also fueled calls for a get-tough stance on China. Following the president's visit to China last summer, Chinese police have waged a major crackdown on members of the China Democratic Party, an incipient opposition group, sentencing them to long prison terms.
"The Clinton administration policy has been a failure in terms of promoting human rights," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. "The president just keeps riding the China tiger, and the regime has not cut him any slack," she says.
Representative Pelosi, a member of a bipartisan congressional coalition on China, says she seeks to use trade and other tools to promote human rights in China under a policy of "sustainable engagement."
"Engagement, yes. Capitulation, no," she says.
The mounting US trade deficit with China, which could reach $60 billion this year, is another source of agitation. US policy is currently "driven by favoritism for the exporting industry elite," charges Pelosi. Instead, Washington should use its leverage as one of China's largest overseas markets to compel greater access to China for a broad range of American products.
In response to such criticism, Clinton is expected to forcefully raise human rights and other issues during his meetings today with Zhu, the first Chinese premier to visit the United States in the 1990s.
Human rights will be "frankly discussed," says Kenneth Lieberthal, the National Security Council's Asia director. In addition, the United States is currently soliciting support from other nations for a motion it will table, condemning China's human rights record, at a United Nations meeting in Geneva later this month, he said.
On bilateral trade and China's long-sought accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), administration officials stress that Washington is withholding its approval until it can get the best deal possible for securing greater access to China's market.
As a result, both Washington and Beijing have virtually ruled out an agreement during Zhu's visit in which the US would support China's entry to the WTO. Instead, a general statement outlining progress and the framework for such an agreement is likely to be announced.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration and Beijing continue to advance the idea of a strategic partnership, raising what they call vital cooperation on nonproliferation and stability on the Korean peninsula. Still, critics say exactly what such a partnership means remains unclear.
"Who are you partnering against - Japan, Russia, India? Strategically, it now has no real sense," says James Lilley, former US ambassador to Beijing.
The current US debate over China policy is likely to continue, and possibly escalate in coming months, experts say.
Numerous lobbying groups, have staked out strong pro- or anti-China positions and won support from lawmakers. At the same time, partisan tensions are deep on Capitol Hill, and differences over China are being used to draw clear party lines. Some strategists see China emerging as an important campaign issue with the approach of the 2000 elections.
"We are going to have a ... very difficult debate over China policy for a long time," says Robert Sutter, a China expert at the Congressional Research Service who has surveyed lawmakers' opinions on China.
And such a debate is likely to perpetuate uncertainty in US- China relations, experts predict. "I am worried about volatility," says Senator Smith. "We could all use a little more certitude in the relationship."