China tries to forge closer bond with US

Hong Kong Tuesday announced that it is holding three men with alleged links to Al Qaeda.

In a shift yet to be tested, China has made a major strategic change in its approach to the United States. Chinese President Jiang Zemin has reportedly offered American leaders a vision of Asia where the US and China coexist as peaceful "partners" – and where China "accepts" American military presence and influence in the region, according to diplomats and Chinese sources.

The Chinese calculate that, in the long run, a new and affirmative relationship with the US on a range of issues – Iraq, the war on terror, military exchanges, North Korea – will improve Beijing's case on the No. 1 disagreement between the US and China: Taiwan.

As the latest sign of increased cooperation, Hong Kong announced Tuesday that FBI agents captured three men who were allegedly trying to obtain anti-aircraft missiles for Al Qaeda. Hong Kong has detained the three suspects, who appeared in court Tuesday to fight extradition to the US.

The partnership idea, representing a sharp break with China's often bellicose anti-US policy of the past decade, was shared with President Bush by Mr. Jiang at a summit late last month in Crawford, Texas. However, the dimensions of the Chinese initiative are only now making their way into policy circles here.

China is on the eve of its biggest political event in a decade – a Party Congress that starts Friday in which Jiang is expected to step down, though retain influence. One legacy of Jiang, who was elevated to China's top job in 1989, may be his bid to put China on a more solid and lasting foothold with the Americans. It's a legacy, moreover, that Jiang may personally oversee even after his official departure, as was the case with his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping.

"The basic message in Crawford was, 'You can have your bases in Korea, in Japan, sail your ships around the Pacific.... We can live with these things. What we want in return is understanding on Taiwan," says Zhu Feng, director of international security studies at Beijing University.

In Texas, Mr. Bush told Jiang that he does not advocate Taiwan independence, and that he supports a "one China" policy. Chinese officials claim the statement is the strongest the US president has made on China's behalf. A number of senior US officials demur in backing this characterization.

Jiang meanwhile made clear that China is not interested in blocking through the Security Council US plans in Iraq, high level US sources say.

"Iraq is an issue we can stand with the world on," says Dr. Zhu. "We don't feel the protection of Saddam Hussein is so decisive to China's future."

The US, for its part, agreed to allow Chinese officials to question alleged members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Chinese nationals picked up by the US in Afghanistan who are being held in Guantanamo, sources say. Senior US officials would not comment on this point.

Reasons behind China's friendliness with the US are manifold. Partly, China is not ready to compete with the US militarily in Asia, and needs time to consolidate its position as a "great power." Beijing is just now coming to grips with the demands of World Trade Organization membership, and with hosting the 2008 Olympics. The shift also reflects a new maturity among Chinese foreign ministry officials, experts say, many of whom have served abroad and adopted a far more pragmatic and mainstream approach than earlier generations.

Yet the proximate cause of China's move came last spring, when Russia signed agreements with both the US and NATO. China had long held out hope that Beijing and Moscow could act as a counterbalance to the US on the world stage. Sources say that when Jiang returned from a trip to the Middle East last spring he told his closest advisers that China was in danger of isolating itself and attracting fewer and fewer allies, and that if Russian President Vladimir Putin made a move toward the US, he would go to Crawford with a significant proposal for partnership as well.

In Crawford, the US and China agreed, among other things, to resume midlevel military exchanges, and start a human rights dialogue in December. The FBI is opening operations in Beijing. The Chinese are also happy that Vice-President Cheney has accepted a visit, anticipated in January.

US-China relations are famously mercurial, however, and some experts feel that China's professed tactical shift deserves a number of serious tests to determine its gravitas and aim. Nationalist sentiment has grown in recent years among ordinary Chinese, especially as communist ideology has waned – and anti-US sentiment is easily sparked.

Some feel Beijing is trying to buy time and a relationship with the US that will lead to China's appropriation of Taiwan, which it considers part of the mainland. Taiwan currently is forging closer economic ties with China, but after a series of elections in recent years of pro-independence candidates, Taiwan has been drifting further away from Beijing as a democratic political entity.

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