US, China find a new middle way

Chinese premier's visit reflects a relationship characterized less by rivalry than moderation.

The welcome accorded Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Washington this week highlights how much US-Chinese relations have improved since the first months of the Bush administration.

This doesn't mean these two giants of the world economy have become strategic partners, as Clinton officials had hoped. From trade to Taiwan, there are too many differences between them for that. But neither have they become strategic competitors, as the Bush team once predicted they might.

For the most part, China and the US instead appear to have compromised on a middle ground that entails working together when they can while playing down conflicts, if possible.

"It's a selective partnership. On issues where they have similar interests, they'll cooperate," says Minxin Pei, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It's easy to forget now, but before Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism intervened it seemed that China might be one of the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy problems.

One of the first real overseas crises the Bush White House dealt with was the forced landing of a US Navy eavesdropping aircraft on Chinese soil. (The crew was peacefully returned after delicate negotiations.) Charges of Chinese espionage further roiled the relationship. Bush himself adamantly defended Taiwan, going so far as to say in April 2001 that he would do whatever it took to defend an island the Chinese government considers a wayward province.

But the Bush White House appeared to learn what every US administration since Nixon has: China is too big and too important to handle without care. It sits on the UN Security Council. The China-Taiwan relationship is potentially one of the most dangerous flash points anywhere. China's voracious economy is becoming the engine of Asia, if not yet the world.

"It has always been a relationship where if it goes very wrong the costs are very high for everyone," says Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan.

Over the past two years, US rhetoric about China has been noticeably more restrained. Washington and Beijing have worked closely together to try to defuse the North Korean nuclear issue.

Gone is the tension of Bush's early months. "It has been one of the biggest foreign policy shifts of this administration," says Elizabeth Economy, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The visit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao reflected this shift. From the 19-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House to President Bush's discussion of Abraham Lincoln with his visitor, Mr. Wen was feted in a way seldom associated with a nation's No. 2 official. Most striking was Bush's stern warning to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, not to proceed with an election gambit seen as a referendum on possible independence.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian has proposed that his nation vote on China's missile build-up in the area, and asked for US support for this vote. Instead, Bush said that Mr. Chen's actions indicate that he may "be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

The US has long indicated that it would come to Taiwan's aid if China tried to use force to bring the island to heel, says Mr. Pei of the Carnegie Endowment. With his statement, Bush has simply explicated what the US position is with regards to possible provocations on the other side of the Taiwan Straits. "The policy to this point was really tilted to Taiwan. This brings it back into balance," says Pei.

Other experts disagree as to whether the statement is on its face a shift in policy. But some saw the atmospherics as striking, noting that President Bush used the phrase "leader" to refer to Taiwan's head of state, as do the Chinese, instead of the more loaded word "president."

Purposely or not, the White House has sent a message that may well reverberate throughout East Asia.

"The signal it sends ... is that the US has backed off, and the growing influence of China has forced the US to back off," says Warren Cohen, a history professor and Asia expert at the University of Maryland.

White House officials insisted that Bush's statement did not conflict with his recent speeches calling for a renewed push to spread democracy in the Middle East, and indeed the world.

Taiwan is already largely democratic, they noted, and enjoys the fruits of a capitalist economy. But this democracy could be threatened if Taiwan's leaders go too far and provoke a Chinese overreaction.

In the end, the Bush administration may simply have recognized the reality that China is on the rise as a regional power and that if the US wants to maintain influence in the area it will have to accommodate itself to this change in some manner. The Chinese themselves have become smoother and less hostile in their diplomacy with the US and many neighbors, note some US experts.

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