China's top leaders want and intend to maintain stable relations with the United States in the wake of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. If Washington and Beijing play their cards right, by the end of the year, relations can be back on track and China and the US can finally reach agreement on China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The Beijing elite soon will gather at the North China beach resort of Beidaihe for their annual policy confab. This year, the aging men in swim trunks will be throwing a lot of policy sand at one another, with the troubled state of US-China relations a principal agenda item. They'll be arguing over what the emerging world order means for China, and assessing Washington's intentions toward them. While the debate will be sharp, particularly concerning WTO entry terms, the likely policy to be adopted should be reassuring to Washington. Unless something dramatic intervenes, Beijing will reaffirm the primacy of domestic reform and openness, and the continuity of its foreign policy and personnel at the very highest levels of leadership.
The principal challenge the Chinese elite face is how to move policy back toward where it was before the mistaken US bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, without losing credibility with a Chinese public genuinely outraged by an attack they can't conceive was accidental.
This probably will take a few more months, meaning the September meeting between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand is the best opportunity to reach a WTO agreement and get relations back on track.
There are three key aspects of future Chinese policy likely to emerge in the next few months.
The fundamental policy of reform and openness will not change. A productive relationship with the US is key to its success. Although marginally more resources will be directed to China's military, Beijing will continue to focus on internal economic and social development, believing that peace and development remain the dominant global trend.
While there is a fierce battle raging over whether or not to stick with the surprisingly forthcoming WTO offer Premier Zhu Rongji made in Washington in April, there is a reasonable prospect they can stick close to that offer in today's new circumstances. The Chinese propaganda apparatus continues to push anti-American rhetoric, while actual policy is moving in the opposite direction. This is because the Chinese mass media are substantially directed by individuals unfriendly to this policy. The regime still is reticent to publicly move in this direction while citizens remain outraged over the embassy bombing.
Consequently, how rapidly the public reaffirmation of a desire for productive relations with Washington occurs, partly depends on the US. Both the White House and Congress can help greatly by providing a full and accurate account of the bombing error.
The previous interim report provided Beijing by presidential emissary Thomas Pickering in June left some obvious gaps.
Second, Congress needs to push ahead with its investigations of the embassy bombing in Belgrade and be ready to debate - and hopefully pass - permanent normal trade relations for China before the end of the year as part of an acceptable agreement on China's long-delayed entry into the WTO.
And finally, Mr. Clinton needs to find a credible way to publicly reaffirm his China policy and not ratchet up WTO demands.
Perhaps he can reread his fine April 7 speech on the subject that he undermined within 24 hours of delivery. If Beijing moves in the direction described above and Washington can do its part, the prospects for getting relations on a positive track are good.
*David M. Lampton is director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University and The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. His article is based on meetings with senior government leaders in Beijing arranged last month by the National Committee on US-China Relations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society