After months of at-times alarmingly rocky relations between the US and China, and despite continued popular anti-American sentiment here, quiet efforts on both sides at improving ties may be paying off.
In April, a military aircraft collision over the South China Sea plunged Sino-US relations into limbo. Yet in recent weeks a steady series of diplomatic visits, carefully worded announcements, and actions suggest the two powers are at pains to move toward more normal relations. There's a desire among Chinese officials to get past the spring standoff, says a US official.
"I predict a normalization of US-China relations within the next half year," says a Chinese Foreign Ministry official. "I already see the signs."
The biggest example of a new comity is this week's agreement to usher China into the World Trade Organization. US officials in Geneva were instrumental in helping remove barriers to China's admittance. Experts say the outcome shows the US and China can work together toward a common goal.
Another is a recent White House position of studied neutrality on Beijing's bid for the 2008 summer Olympics. The winning city will be announced next Friday. The Bush administration's non-position, says one expert, "neutralized" Capitol Hill groups that felt awarding the games to Beijing would "legitimize" a repressive communist regime. Some sources feel Beijing's return gesture will be a freeing of one or more of five detained US-based scholars before Friday.
During the plane incident in April, bellicose anti-US invective was daily fare here. Foreign ministry spokespeople and Chinese media demanded apologies and regularly referred to the "imperialist and hegemonic US."
Yet despite what was a severe and time-consuming test of the new Bush administration, official Chinese actions since the air crash have been relatively moderate. Beijing's condemnation of a large US arms deal with Taiwan was less vitriolic than expected. Chinese military exercises along the Taiwan Strait last month were not highlighted. Even the US visits of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, and former President Lee Teng-hui got less attention than many observers thought they would.
"The main difference between cold war US-Soviet relations and what we now see between the US and China is that the US actually does have a complicated and involved relationship with China," says Robert Ross of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Are Chinese officials going to continue to send their kids to study in the US? Yes. Will US companies continue to invest? Yes."
During the first six months of the Bush administration, high-level official contact between China and the US was minimal. Now, plans are on the table for Secretary of State Colin Powell to visit Beijing later this month. Last week, State Department chief for Policy Planning Richard Haas met in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Cui Tian-kai, for consultations. The talks, conducted entirely in English, reportedly ranged widely - from possible cooperation on confidence-building measures like cross-border drug trafficking and the environment, to harder questions like Taiwan and weapons proliferation. Sources say the two will meet again in late fall, after President Bush visits China for the APEC economic summit.
Still, popular opinion about the US - both among elite and ordinary Chinese - continues to reflect new levels of anger and annoyance. There is worry on the street that the US is conspiring to thwart Beijing's Olympic bid. There is also a much more deeply held belief among even highly educated Chinese that the US has decided that for the indefinite future, China is the "enemy," as Zhang Jian, editor of the neoconservative magazine "Strategy and Management," told reporters. "Many of my colleagues, younger Chinese professionals feel that in the coming decade, the US represents a dangerous threat to Chinese interests," he says.
China has never held an Olympics, and leaders here feel the games are a long-delayed symbol of China's international prestige. Many Chinese were crushed in 1993 when they lost a 2000 games bid to Sydney - partly, they say, owing to an active blocking campaign by the Clinton administration. "One thing I am sure of," says a retired professor. "If Beijing loses the Olympics, many Chinese will blame the Americans. They consider the Americans very powerful, and not friendly to Chinese."
After 1993, US efforts to deny the 2000 Olympics to China, to punish Beijing for human rights abuses, and an unrepentant attitude over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were popularly seen as harmful to the Chinese people. In this environment, the Bush administration's neutrality over the 2008 Olympics makes sense. "There has not been an explicitly articulated China policy, or an articulated Taiwan policy," says James Mulvenon of the Rand Institute in Washington. "The neutrality policy appears to be the first time the White House has been out in front of the issues."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor