Premier Wen Jiabao, one of China's more sympathetic leaders, begins an American tour Monday that is shaping up to be one of the liveliest Sino-US exchanges in some time.
Until two weeks ago, when Taiwan suddenly zoomed onto the radar, Mr. Wen's visit appeared to be a platform for improving US-China relations. Issues like China's lead role in dealing with North Korea, the US lifting of steel tariffs, and the smoothing of trade relations, all looked to carry the two giant powers far past the early confrontation in 2001 over a downed US spy plane.
Now, with Taiwan scheduling a controversial referendum next March, and China threatening military action, the visit will also open some of the more fragile aspects of relations. Ties with China have long been a seesaw affair that have involved US admonitions on human rights. But to discuss Taiwan's rights and status is a test that neither side wanted; it has reportedly created deep divisions in a White House that has been trying to separate its economic cooperation with Beijing, from its military support of Taipei.
"There is worry among hard-liners that Bush will now kowtow to Mr. Wen, and sell out Taiwan," says Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don't think that will happen. You will not find a more sympathetic ear for Taiwan than this White House. But this issue creates some strain."
Yet Wen's moderate temperament and approach make him one of the more desirable interlocutors the Americans could have hoped for, say analysts.
Since replacing economic reform czar Zhu Rongji last year, Wen, along with new head of state Hu Jintao, has developed a reputation as a "voice of the people" in China. Part of the 9-member elite that runs China, he is the first youthful "fourth generation" leader to visit the States. His reputation is of a man equally at home in the countryside and corporate settings. Due to his highly regarded political talents and economic skills, he rose despite being a protege of former Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a Tiananmen-era reformer who has lived under house arrest for more than a decade after he and Wen met with students demonstrators. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the size of the China's Standing Committee.]
Wen arrives as the representative of both an ancient civilization and of a ruling party structure whose origins are 19th-century Marxism and 20th-century peasant revolutionary Maoism - though one now evolving, as the phrase goes here, to "new realities" of capitalism.
China's economic dynamism - evidenced by a $120 billion trade surplus with the US alone - is changing its relations with the US and the world. China is rapidly adopting a modest and friendly image throughout Asia, as a charm offensive, even as the country steadily rises as the heavyweight of the region.
Following the visit to Crawford, Texas, last year of former Chinese top leader Jiang Zemin, China and the Bush team have steadily moved toward finding consensus and convergence. As a UN Security Council member, China did not block US plans to topple Saddam Hussein. Concerned about US aims on the Korean peninsula as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il claimed to be reprocessing plutonium, China reversed course following the Iraq invasion and agreed to hold multilateral talks. (Since the first six-party talks in September, and with an election coming, neither Washington nor Pyongyang now seems to want to confront any substantive issues. Talks set for Dec. 17 have been postponed again.)
On the trade front, the US recently slapped tariffs on Chinese TVs and textiles. US Treasury Secretary John Snow will reportedly re-argue with Wen the case for China raising its artificially-sustained currency rate.
Wen, for his part, will be buying $7 billion-plus worth of US goods in a shopping trip that includes passenger jets and information technology. Much of the outlay was already in the pipeline. But Beijing has put the list together as a package in an effort to address public sentiment in the States over China's whopping deficit, and to highlight Chinese US purchases.
Yet Taiwan has upstaged much of the visit's previous agenda. Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian vowed last week to hold a referendum during national elections in March that will brazenly rub up against Beijing's "red line" on the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty.
China, which sees Taiwan as the last piece in its eventual consolidation of preeminence in Asia, has bluntly responded, saying that Taiwan is risking "the abyss of war." Wen will certainly push the White House, which has already canceled a trip by a senior Taiwan defense official and a war simulation in Honolulu this month, to deal strictly with Chen.
China wants the White House to draw an explicit line limiting and defining US support of Taiwan, something Bush has been reluctant to do.
The US has said it does "not support" Taiwan independence - which is a neutral formulation that keeps the lexicological door open for Taiwan to develop freely. But lately some US officials have used the phrase "oppose" Taiwan independence, and even "oppose a move" toward independence.