A careful boost for US-China ties

A Senate delegation is in China for the second set of high-level talks in two weeks, after a tense spring.

The seaside resort of Beidaihe, where China's leaders decamp in August, is famous for swimming, beaches, and super-secret summer meetings.

Yet in an evident bid to keep relations with the US on an improving track, President Jiang Zemin broke with precedent this week - inviting four leading US senators for lengthy talks at his Beidaihe hideaway.

For President Jiang, it was a time to advocate market reforms, make a few jokes, and talk tough on Taiwan.

For the US senators, it was a time to grapple with the perennial dilemma of how to deal with China.

After months of tension, including a standoff over a midair plane collision in April and a more pro-Taiwan Bush administration - the senators sought a "third way" with China, aides said. That is, to try and constructively engage Beijing by promoting trade and exchange, but also to speak directly and forcefully on issues that divide the two major powers.

While there were no breakthroughs, the talks with China's supreme leader were revealing: Jiang denied that China was breaking "the letter" of agreements not to export sensitive weapons and missile technology to states like Pakistan and North Korea, the senators said. And Jiang stated he did not want to see a North Korea with nuclear-weapons capability.

Jiang left the impression, moreover, that despite earlier vociferous opposition to the Bush administration's proposed national missile defense (NMD) shield, China had not reached a final decision on the matter. (China hoped to ally with Russia against NMD - hopes that were dashed last month when Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to work with the White House on a new arms-control formula.)

The delegation, including Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was equally frank. They made clear to Jiang that if China continues to proliferate sensitive weapons technology, this would create a public outcry in the US and "lead to an arms race" that neither side wants, Senator Biden said. They frankly raised human rights, China's lack of due process in legal cases involving a spate of detained US citizens, and Taiwan - where the delegation spent a day before reaching mainland China.

What seems significant about the trip is the working tone established between the two sides, some China experts say.

This past spring, the debate over often-rugged US relations with China has fallen even more sharply into two basic camps: those who feel it best to help China open and develop through a liberal policy of "engagement," and those who feel China should be "contained" as a potential threat to the US.

The Clinton administration advocated the former approach. The Bush administration has leaned toward the latter, with a number of "China hawks" in key positions.

Biden told reporters at a gathering that Washington "tends to fall into two camps." In the "engagement" camp, "the idea is that if you want good relations with China, you should not be publicly critical." In the other camp, one should "use the giant stick" of advocating an end to all trade with a regime that still has profound human rights problems and is accused of breaking agreements on proliferating missile technology.

"This looks to me like a strategy of 'congagement,' a blend of engagement and containment," says Cheng Li, a China expert at Hamilton College in New York. "US leaders have two main problems: they don't know how to deal with China, and they don't have many options. It is too late to contain China, and the US public is not ready for a highly confrontational approach."

Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, a ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that "year after year in our reports, China comes up as one of, if not the biggest, proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.

"Many of us in Congress want to give engagement a chance, but we aren't yet convinced that it will lead to the good things promised down the road. The problem is: What do you do in the meantime? We aren't sure the Chinese have arrived at the conclusion that there is a price to pay for doing things inimical to our interests."

The delegation, which also includes Senators Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland and Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, is the second to hold high-level talks in China since relations deteriorated this spring. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell paid a brief but effusive visit, designed to prepare the way for President Bush's trip to Shanghai and Beijing in October.

The central issue for China is Taiwan, Jiang told the senators. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, and has said it would go to war if it declares independence. In an exchange with Jiang, Biden said the delegation had affirmed to Taiwan President Chen Shui-Bian that the US was committed to arming Taiwan, but "made it clear" that the US did not advocate its seeking independence. According to Biden, Jiang answered frankly that "Taiwan is seeking independence, and he said we [the US] are encouraging them."

The senators expressed concern over a nuclear arms race in the region while raising China's alleged technology exports. "You've got India now responding to China, and Pakistan responding to India.... This is a dangerous situation," Biden said.

Jiang was reflective at times, the senators said, at one point asking: "What is going to be the basis of our [US-China] post-cold-war friendship?" This summer, Chinese leaders are in the midst of a struggle over Jiang's replacement. Under a new party-seniority law, he is expected to step down early next year.

When asked about the future, Jiang said three different times in the two-hour meeting, "I hope it will be a peaceful world, but perhaps I am naive."

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