U.s.-china Relations Worsen

June 09, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Staring suspiciously at each other across the Pacific, China and the United States are rapidly becoming each other's worst enemy, with their antagonism reaching a new high over the visit this week to the United States by the president of Taiwan.

For Americans, the visit by President Lee Teng-hui seems wholly innocuous: Mr. Lee is head of a prosperous and almost fully democratic country, and is scheduled to speak today at his alma mater, Cornell University.

But China sees Mr. Lee as head of a renegade province. By granting him permission to visit, the United States raised his status in the world and thereby lowered China's, or so it appears to Chinese officials.

"Lee's visit is just the start of an acrimonious period in Chinese-U.S. relations," said Bonnie Glaser, a private consultant hired by the Clinton administration to advise it on China policy. "It's going downhill and about to go further downhill." The discontent began long before Mr. Lee's visit to Cornell.

To China's displeasure, the Pentagon has said it might stop reducing U.S. forces in Asia because of China's growing influence. The Senate is considering a bill that would declare Tibet, now controlled by China, an "occupied sovereign country." And there is frequent American criticism of China as a salesman of missiles and other arms.

On China's side, the government of President Jiang Zemin has blamed the United States for a range of foreign policy setbacks, including Taiwan's international assertiveness, China's failure to enter the new World Trade Organization as a founding member, and the humiliating criticism of its human rights record at international forums.

Chinese nationalism has already been stirred. An opinion poll conducted by China Youth News found that 70 percent of the young people surveyed named the United States as China's most probable adversary, according to unpublished preliminary results.

"Many people, including some in the top leadership, think Americans don't want China to become strong and prosperous," said a leading specialist on the United States at China's Academy of Social Sciences. "I don't believe America has such a policy, in fact I'm not sure it has any China policy, but it's easy to see how this perception comes about."

The strongest Chinese criticism of U.S. policy is that it holds China to a higher standard than other countries, a practice rooted in U.S. fears of China's growing economic power.

On missile proliferation, for example, China is upbraided for selling missiles to Pakistan. But as Fulbright scholar Robert Ross notes, the missiles remain undeployed and have been China's ** only sale since 1988 -- "a record of which the United States would be proud, given the fact that in that period we helped arm Iraq."

On sales of nuclear technology to Iran, China also feels unfairly criticized. The sale was in retaliation for President George Bush's decision to sell F-16 fighters to Taiwan, an international tit-for-tat, as Chinese policy-makers see it.

U.S. worries about China's military are seen as similarly exaggerated. While the United States continues to help Japan maintain an arsenal of weapons that are state of the art, China is criticized for trying to enter the 1970s.

"We have technology from the 1950s and 1960s, yet people are always talking about us being a threat," a researcher at a government-affiliated think tank said. "Japan has a history of aggression; we don't."

When criticizing China's human rights, many Chinese scholars privately say that the United States is on firmer ground. But even a strongly pro-American academic is perplexed that Washington harps on China's abuses while backing Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, despite the Russian army's killing of thousands of civilians in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"People wonder what the United States is really getting at, what its hidden agenda is," the scholar said. "Why is it always criticizing China, always finding fault? Isn't it because it really wants a weak, divided China?"

Analysts believe that these disputes keep occurring because of the inevitable differences between a rising power and an already established one, with the established power often feeling threatened by the challenger, regardless of its actual strength or intentions.

Analysts also blame the political weakness of Mr. Jiang in China and of President Clinton in the United States.

In China, Mr. Jiang is mired in a power struggle to succeed ailing strongman Deng Xiaoping. Dissidents have been rounded up for signing innocuous petitions and China's troublesome regions, such as Tibet, are ruled more tightly than before.

"No Chinese leader can make too many concessions or else he'll be seen as the Chinese Gorbachev -- that is being the person who stood by and watched the demise of the Chinese Communist Party," said Dr. Ross, who is spending this year in China on leave from Boston College. "Such a person would never have been acceptable to his peers as a leader of China."

China has been toughening its rhetoric in recent days to show it can stand up to the United States. A year ago, Mr. Clinton ended the link between trade and human rights, a major concession to China. Now China is demanding that Washington stop altogether its annual review of China's trade status, a yearly exercise that China finds demeaning.

And as for Mr. Lee's visit to Cornell, Beijing has made it clear that it will retaliate further, having already cut short one visit to the United States by military officials and canceled another.

"The next couple of years are going to be rough," said the U.S. expert at the Chinese Social Sciences Academy.

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