It was December 1990, and US-China ties were still reeling from the blow of Beijing's brutal crackdown on mass protests in Tiananmen Square. In the White House cabinet room, President George Bush sat down with a senior Chinese official for the first time since the June 1989 massacre, grappling for ways to resuscitate relations.
Today, a decade later, the same seasoned Chinese envoy, Qian Qichen, arrives in Washington for China's first official talks with the young administration of George W. Bush, in hope of heading off new crises looming in Sino-American ties.
"Qian is coming to Washington to take strategic stock of the new administration," says David Shambaugh, an expert on US-China relations at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution here.
He is expected to convey Beijing's concerns over the Bush team's pledge to deploy missile defenses and to bolster alliances with Japan and South Korea, as well as the possible sale next month of more advanced US arms to Taiwan.
For its part, the Bush administration seeks a "direct dialogue" with Mr. Qian on a range of issues, including China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), weapons nonproliferation, and worsening Chinese human rights violations, especially in Tibet and against the banned Falun Gong sect, according to administration officials.
On the planned US missile shield, which Beijing opposes, Washington will tell Qian that such a system "is not directed at them [China]," one official says.
On Taiwan, Bush officials will advise Qian that China's military posture, notably its buildup of hundreds of missiles along the coast opposite the island, is a key factor in any forthcoming US weapons sales to Taiwan. "We do not welcome their continued deployments of missiles toward Taiwan," the official says.
A sophisticated but tough Shanghai-born diplomat, Qian comes to Washington with considerably more authority than a decade ago, when he was foreign minister. Today, he speaks as one of China's powerful inner circle. As the top foreign policymaker, a member of the elite Communist Party politburo, and vice premier, he "carries the support of the seniormost Beijing leadership," Mr. Shambaugh says.
Yet if the past is any guide, Qian can expect to meet with only mixed success. Indeed, his transPacific shuttling serves to chronicle a relationship that has grown steadily more complex - and often stormy - in the more than two decades since China opened up contacts with the West.
Qian assumed the post of foreign minister in 1988, in a decade that experts widely view as a heyday in relations, when the United States and China shared a common goal in containing the former Soviet Union, especially in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Soon, however, the breakup of the Soviet empire and close of the cold war ended this core rationale for cooperation.
For much of the next decade, Qian found himself playing the role of fireman, as one crisis flared after another. After the crushing of Tiananmen protests in 1989 exposed a chasm over human rights and other deeply held values, it was Qian who met with Bush envoy Brent Scowcroft in the first public attempt to heal the rift. "Important as our differences are, they cannot obliterate the major common interests between us," Qian told General Scowcroft at a Beijing banquet.
It was a theme that Qian would sound repeatedly during the difficult 1990s, as the strategic interests of Beijing and Washington increasingly diverged.
In 1995 and 1996, Taiwan's independent leanings and an unprecedented US trip by Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui fueled disagreements and challenged the longstanding "one China" policy. Infuriated, Beijing recalled its ambassador and in March 1996 ordered missile tests and war games off Taiwan. Washington responded by deploying two carrier battle groups, bringing the countries the closest they had come to armed conflict since the 1960s era of Maoist radicalism.
Qian was criticized internally by Chinese hard-liners and military leaders for both the Lee visit and for his stance against the missile firings. "The collective weight was against him," says Larry Wortzel, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation here.
Still, Qian continued to press the theme of common interests, and with a flurry of diplomacy he forged agreement for a visit by President Jiang Zemin to the United States in 1997.
Nevertheless, the late 1990s also saw a growing "strategic competition" between Beijing and Washington as their list of disagreements grew to include not only Taiwan, but also Japan's regional security role, the expansion of NATO, the Kosovo intervention, and policy toward Iran and Iraq, to name a few.
Indeed, the Bush administration has explicitly downgraded Beijing from "strategic partner" under Clinton to "strategic competitor" as it focuses on traditional allies in Asia.
"We are going to begin our engagement in Asia by looking at our great alliances there: our alliance with Japan, our alliance with South Korea," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee this month.
"[The Chinese are] not a strategic partner," he stressed. "They are regional competitors."
Such talk has sparked "genuine concern in Beijing about the direction that this new administration might take toward them," says Bates Gill, a Northeast Asia expert at Brookings. "Everything the Chinese leadership holds dear, including the maintenance of their power, is highly dependent upon a stable relationship with the US."
In response, Beijing has launched a "charm offensive," culminating in Qian's visit, as "a tactical effort to put a best face on things and achieve a positive tone," Mr. Gill says. Qian is scheduled to hold two days of talks with Bush, Mr. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Beijing also showed its eagerness to establish personal ties with the new president by prematurely announcing that he would make a state visit to China this October in conjunction with an economic meeting of Asian-Pacific nations.
The announcement by Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing, which both surprised and irritated senior US officials, demonstrates just how badly Chinese leaders "want to make sure they are on the radar screen," says one China expert.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor