The new Bush administration and China have traded several zingers over alleged Chinese military assistance to Iraq, setting off an expected period of gusty weather.
The US-Sino contretemps, which began with the Pentagon saying US airstrikes on Iraq were timed to avoid harming Chinese engineers, are unlikely to fundamentally damage the often troubled relations between the two world powers, analysts say.
But together with a variety of other hints and more assertive positions on China taken by the Bush administration, the back and forth marks a change from the more benign atmosphere of "strategic partnership" that characterized relations at the end of the Clinton administration.
The Iraqi case seems part of a larger White House effort to find a tougher yet workable position from which to deal with Asia's largest power, analysts say.
So far, Beijing has continued to sidestep a series of White House "concerns" that Chinese engineers were in Iraq Feb. 16 when US and British warplanes attacked, helping to install a defense-related fiber-optic network that may have already enhanced Iraq's radar and surface-to-air missile capability.
Chinese officials here say the US allegations are an attempt to divert attention from a mixed international reaction over the Iraqi strikes. They say China abides by the United Nations sanctions placed on Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War, and accuse the US of having "ulterior motives."
President Bush himself seemed to close off some of the back and forth when saying the White House sent a formal message to Beijing and received an answer Friday. Mr. Bush said the Chinese response was: " 'If this is the case, we'll remedy the situation.' "
To distinguish his policy toward China, candidate Bush had referred to China as a "competitor" with the US in Asia, rather than a "partner," the language of the Clinton administration.
Since the election, the new administration, which includes fewer China specialists than did the Clinton team, has taken - directly and indirectly - a more assertive tone toward Beijing. The administration has hinted it is likely to shift its East Asian emphasis toward Japan.
Last week the White House stated it would sponsor a resolution in Geneva next month critical of China's human rights record - a high-profile issue this week as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson is scheduled to oversee a workshop in Beijing on China's justice system.
On Thursday, a semi-annual CIA report implied that China may have broken its pledge not to cooperate with Iran on nuclear technology.
China has continued to sharply criticize plans floated by the US to develop a sophisticated missile defense system, saying it would break the ABM treaty of 1972. Chinese officials have warned that a weapons and defense-sharing program that could be sold to Taiwan, or that could be quickly converted into an offensive system, would force the People's Republic into a full-scale arms race.
Some China watchers say that Beijing is used to the various fluctuations of US administrations when they first take office.
"I think the Chinese already understand that they are in for a series of little unpleasant issues," says one think tank expert who recently spent time with Chinese military leaders. "They have already braced themselves for a period of adjustment. They just want to make sure there is nothing too different coming their way, and I don't think there is."
The biggest test, however, comes in April when the Bush administration must decide what level of weaponry it will sell to Taiwan.
China is adamant that Taiwan is part of its territory under a "one China policy," and that Taiwan will eventually link with the mainland as did Hong Kong. The Taiwanese resist this argument - and every year the US authorizes arms sales to the Taipei government, which lobbies Washington to purchase nearly as much of the latest weaponry as possible.
Should the White House approve, for example, sale of an Aegis class cruiser to Taiwan - a sophisticated missile tracking boat that could be used to thwart Chinese strikes against the island - China would almost certainly see the sale as a direct confrontation.
How far China would take this perceived threat is unclear. The Clinton administration decided not to test China's threshold, and did not make the Aegis available to Taiwan.
Yet the Bush administration is staffed by several key foreign policy veterans - Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, for example - who differ with the Clinton policy and advocate more support for the government in Taipei.
"There are some veterans who feel that US interests are best served by a tougher approach," says one long-time China hand who worked on Asia policy with the Reagan administration. "They are less likely to blink, more likely to say, 'if you don't like it, too bad.' "
"The Bush administration has a number of 'pro-Japan' figures, but no one who has really studied China from the inside," says David Zweig, a scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "They are starting off by taking a purely 'American interest' point of view. They don't ask, how will this play in Beijing? They act like they don't care.' "
Beijing, for its part, continues to raise the issue of the 1998 NATO bombing of its embassy in Belgrade as a deliberate act. The bombing, which US officials insist was accidental, and for which the US government recently offered reparations, put US-Sino relations into a sudden deep freeze from which it has not entirely recovered.
Yet both sides have substantial interests in improving relations, including the pro-business US lobby and reformers in China who advocate WTO membership for China. Following the election of Mr. Bush, the Chinese replaced their ambassador in Washington with Yang Jiechi, a personal friend of the Bush family.
The US-China relationship is "too important to fail," as one US diplomat put it.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society