The bad news: The next few months in US-China relations will be the most strenuous test of the relationship since the Tiananmen Square bloodshed of 1989.
The good news: US-China relations, which have shown a two-decade-long pattern, can be managed. Events tend to push the relationship to the edge early in US administrations as Beijing and/or Washington stumble into friction. After a trying period, things then settle into a more manageable pattern.
For example, Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping vigorously sparred over weapons sales to Taiwan in 1981-82. Early in his presidency, the first President Bush grappled with the Tiananmen bloodshed. President Clinton had an early crisis with Beijing over trade policy, until he retreated. Now the second President Bush faces a situation in which events are stacking up precariously in the wake of the air collision near China and its aftermath of inconclusive negotiations and tough talk.
This is the most complex opening year with China that any recent president has faced. Recent events and coming decisions are sobering. The US just failed to have China's human rights behavior condemned by the UN Commission in Geneva, breeding resentment both in Beijing and on Capitol Hill. Congressional anger will be compounded by the detention in China of a growing number of US-connected scholars of Chinese ethnicity.
Adding to the pressure, in the next few days, Washington will presumably make known what weapons it is prepared to sell Taipei; some possible choices could infuriate Beijing. Moreover, Taiwan's former president, Lee Teng-hui, will soon privately visit the US - his earlier trip to Cornell University in 1995 precipitated a mini-missile crisis - and before long there will be another US "transit" stop by Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian, a subject so sensitive in Beijing that media there will not use his name.
In May, the Dalai Lama will visit the United States. Presumably he will see the president. Bill Clinton thought these visits were so sensitive that they were kept exceedingly low profile.
At mid-year, for the 12th time, Congress will debate whether or not to extend normal tariff treatment to Beijing for another year. And in July, the International Olympic Committee will announce the venue for the 2008 Olympics, which has become a national obsession in China.
Given congressional and other opposition, Washington will be blamed by the Chinese people if the Games go elsewhere.
Some guidelines may be helpful to the president and his team as they work through this thicket, realizing that Beijing's behavior is crucial.
To start, President Bush has been a man of relatively few words, but his words on China have been good. He has played the role of public educator, and he should continue doing so. His April 12 Rose Garden remarks are illustrative. He called for both sides to "make a determined choice to have productive relations." He noted that the two nations have "common interests" and "we need to work together ... in a spirit of respect" in order to have "productive relations." The president's words have had an effect on public thinking. According to a Newsweek poll taken after the crew of the downed US plane was released, there is little support for retribution. Likewise, Premier Zhu Rongji indicated on April 19 that he hopes for positive development of US-China relations.
Second, the US shouldn't threaten things that are not in American interests and will not be implemented. Eleven times Congress has debated the wisdom of extending normal tariff treatment to China, and 11 times it has concluded that doing so is in US interests and that to terminate it would hurt us, our friends in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a sputtering Asian economy, and a rising Chinese middle class.
Third, in those areas where we have deep principles and important interests, we should persist. We must, therefore, continue to assert our rights to reconnoiter from international airspace and waters, navigate freely in international waters, and provide visas to private individuals as we wish.
Fourth, do not prematurely revisit the earlier decision to have President Bush visit Beijing following the fall Asian economic summit in Shanghai. This visit may be the right move then.
Finally, don't sell weapons to Taiwan that cannot be delivered for eight years but will immediately increase the threat Taiwan faces. Instead, encourage cross-strait ties, and lay the groundwork for weapons transfers if China does not show restraint in its deployments and behavior. Do not transfer offensive weapons to Taiwan that go beyond US obligations to provide defensive systems.
David M. Lampton, author of the recently published 'Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing US-China Relations 1989-2000' (University of California Press, 2001), is Hyman Professor and director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and The Nixon Center in Washington.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor