MADRID -- After several months of secret negotiations, Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced last night that he will visit China this month, a trip that is bound to revive the debate over the Bush administration's stance toward the
hard-line Beijing government.
Mr. Baker will be the highest-level Bush administration official to visit Beijing since the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
His announcement of the trip, made at the close of the Middle East peace talks in Madrid, came only a few days after reports that China may be helping Iran develop a nuclear bomb.
Clearly aware that his trip will reignite the debate between Democrats in Congress and the administration over how tough the United States should be in dealing with Beijing, Mr. Baker immediately took the offensive.
"China has almost one-fourth of all the people in the world," he said, echoing President Bush's argument that China, no matter how repressive its domestic policies, is simply too big to ignore.
"It has nuclear weapons, it has great influence in the region, and it has immense economic potential," he said.
Seeking to justify the timing of his trip, Mr. Baker said that his mission was the only way of persuading Beijing to make the changes in arms control and human rights policies that the United States is seeking.
"We cannot make headway unless we discuss them," he argued. "Ignoring them will not make the problems go away."
The Bush administration's policy toward China is widely viewed as being set by Mr. Bush himself, who in the early 1970s was the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Beijing.
Mr. Bush dispatched his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on two secret missions to China in 1989.
Chinese leaders have pressed hard for a visit by Mr. Baker, who has previously visited the neighboring country of Mongolia without stopping in China.
China feels that Mr. Baker's visit would be an important propaganda victory, demonstrating the country's continued importance in the new world order and Washington's willingness to work with Beijing's hard-line leadership to resolve the strains in their relationship.