BEIJING -- In August, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu became the first head of a major nation to visit China since the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He came away with a promise that China would sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In September, British Prime Minister John Major became the first leader of a Western nation to break the diplomatic ice. He received much-needed Chinese agreement on plans for a new Hong Kong airport, a project essential for the colony's future economic growth.
Now U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is following the same path for the United States, thus formally ending a 2-year-old U.S. sanction on high-level diplomatic contacts with China. (National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft has visited China, but Beijing does not consider him a high enough official, and that visit was low-key enough for the Bush administration to insist that it didn't break the sanctions.)
But what reward will China give the United States in return for Mr. Baker's journey?
With Mr. Baker's two-day visit set to begin tomorrow, the answer remains unclear -- posing a political risk for the Bush administration, which has faced sharp criticism for being too soft on China's hard-line government.
"The Americans have been telling the Chinese you've got to deliver on something big," a Western diplomat said here this week. "But all that the Chinese have been saying is, 'Trust us, trust us. First come, and then we'll talk about it.' "
The heated U.S. debate on continuing China's favorable trade status -- along with several U.S. investigations of Chinese trade practices -- already is pressuring China to resolve purely economic Sino-American disputes.
So Mr. Baker most likely will be pushing for clear-cut Chinese concessions on the two other main flash points in the two nations' troubled relationship: human rights and arms control.
The release of some political prisoners might play well among U.S.voters, thereby making a domestic political success of Mr. Baker's visit. But international human rights groups recently have pointed out that freed political prisoners here often continue to endure abusive restrictions on their rights.
Chinese vows to control sales of arms and missile and nuclear technology to other nations might represent an even greater breakthrough. But China has yet even to carry out its August promise to sign the nuclear treaty. And there is strong evidence that China's leadership, whatever its intent, is not entirely able to control all the nation's weapons peddlers.
Perhaps as critical as the nature of possible Chinese concessions is their timing.
President Bush's China stance may be one of the few areas of foreign policy in which he is vulnerable in next year's elections. As a result, any Chinese accession to U.S. concerns needs to be linked directly to Mr. Baker's visit.
But China's leaders, who have stepped up nationalistic propaganda to buttress their own domestic political legitimacy, cannot risk being perceived as having been pushed around by Washington. So China may well attempt to save face by delivering any concessions long after Mr. Baker has left.
As this high-level brinkmanship reaches a head this weekend, the most effective weapon in the U.S. diplomatic arsenal remains China's most-favored-nation trade status.
If Mr. Baker does leave without a significant Chinese concession, it will only increase U.S. congressional opposition next summer to renewing China's MFN status for another year.
While China is officially heralding Mr. Baker's visit as a major step toward full restoration of relations with the United States, an internally circulated Chinese document reportedly is taking a far less welcoming line -- including attacking President Bush for his very support for MFN status.
According to Western news reports this week, the secret document claims that the president -- though supportive of MFN -- shares the same intolerable goal as China's critics in Congress: the collapse of Chinese communism.
The document warns that Mr. Bush only wants MFN renewal as a vehicle by which to export democratic ideals to China.