Hu Jintao, heir apparent to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, is going to Washington.
The primary bone of contention in the visit, which begins Wednesday, is Taiwan. A number of recent developments have alarmed Beijing. In March, while at a conference in Florida, Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yiau-ming met with senior Pentagon officials, challenging an informal ban on contact between senior Taiwanese and US officials.
During the meeting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took a tough line: "As President Bush and others have said, the United States is committed to doing whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself."
Also worrying to many Chinese: Mr. Bush recently referred to Taiwan as the "Republic of Taiwan," violating the "one China" policy. The White House quickly called the comment a "slip." Then on April 9 anniversary of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which Congress declared its continued support for Taiwan following normalization of ties with China more than 70 members of Congress inaugurated the Congressional Taiwan Caucus.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) said: "The message to those dictators who control the mainland is clear: Keep your bloody hands off of Taiwan." Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) went further, declaring "there should be a one China, one Taiwan, and a one Tibet policy."
Such polemics come at a time when many in Beijing believe China has made conciliatory gestures toward Washington. When Bush was at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai last November, President Jiang fully endorsed the war on terrorism. When Bush visited Beijing in February, Jiang did not respond to a perceived provocation: Bush's emphasis on the Taiwan Relations Act rather than the three US-China communiqués.
Earlier this year pundits hoped that working together in the war on terror could boost US-China ties. Now, many in China fear a new US "encirclement": increased military cooperation with Taiwan to the east, plus new US military bases to the west in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Chinese pundits also worry that in Washington's latest defense- and nuclear-posture reviews, China is now the primary opponent of the US.
Many in Beijing conclude that hawks within the Bush administration seek a clash with China. In dealing with Bush, they argue, playing softball does not pay.
The director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies even referred to the Korean War as an example of the "serious consequences" the Bush administration would face if it crossed China's "red lines" and provoked retaliation.
In light of these troubling developments, the Hu visit is an opportunity to nudge one of the world's most vital bilateral relationships back on track.
If Hu does assume the presidency this fall and governs China for the next decade, his first encounter with America must be positive. Hu is already taking a political risk by going to the United States. Bush would be wise, therefore, not to lecture Hu on American values. Instead, he should let American society speak for itself; Hu can see the vitality and resilience of a democratic society, even after Sept. 11.
On Taiwan, Bush should publicly assure Hu that the US welcomes peaceful reunification with China and that he sees reunification as more likely under a more democratic China. This would give Hu confidence that the US and a rising China can coexist, and encourage him to consider further political reform.
On the other hand, Hu can demonstrate his understanding of an open society by calmly handling demonstrations expected during his visit. Moreover, Hu can display his statesmanship by stating that despite recent American moves toward Taiwan, China still supports the war against terrorism and the US effort to end the violence in the Middle East. By paying tribute to the 9/11 victims, Hu can generate goodwill toward China.
Wednesday's meeting need not be a lovefest, but let's hope Bush and Hu can come to trust each other enough to work together to stabilize US-China relations.
Shiping Tang is assistant fellow at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Peter Hays Gries is assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado. They co-direct the Sino-American Security Dialogue.