Suspicion hampers improvement in U.S.-China ties As meetings proliferate, underlying disputes persist

November 17, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- The best-known American in China these days is probably Mike Tyson, the heavyweight boxer whose defeat last weekend was aired live on television to a disbelieving audience of millions.

In a country increasingly uncertain of what to make of the United States, the convicted rapist who made $30 million for an evening's work has come to symbolize the good and evil that Chinese see in America.

"In the past, America was viewed positively," said Hu Chengguo, editor of American Panorama, a Chinese monthly devoted to coverage of the United States.

"But ordinary people now see bad along with the good in the United States."

This ambivalent view of America underlies the problems facing Secretary of State Warren Christopher when he arrives in Beijing on Tuesday.

On just his second visit in four years, Christopher faces a series of problems rooted in China's suspicion of America's motives and intentions.

On the surface, Christopher's visit marks a warmer phase in Sino--U.S. relations.

A bipartisan consensus has emerged that China should be "engaged" in the international order by encouraging it to join international organizations and sign treaties, rather than isolated and punished.

At America's prodding, a parade of officials have shuttled across the Pacific to speed up China's integration. Christopher's visit could set the stage for the next level of contacts, including reciprocal state visits next year by President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton.

Analysts and diplomats say, however, that the meetings only mask deeper problems that are likely to make Sino-U.S. relations difficult in the years to come.

"We've gotten to a point where the process is the content," said Wendy Frieman, a China specialist at Science Applications International Corp.

"People say how good it is we're having meetings, but what are we achieving? It doesn't seem to matter as long as there is a 21-gun salute."

Three main problems stand between Washington and Beijing: trade, proliferation of weapons and human rights.

Of the three, most progress has been made in trade, and China stands a fair chance of joining the World Trade Organization next year.

After arguing that China had not fulfilled conditions to join, the United States is now actively promoting China's entrance if it agrees to implement certain reforms.

Weapons proliferation is another area where controversy has died down. While U.S. intelligence continues to report Chinese weapons sales to countries hostile to the United States, Washington has overlooked much of the evidence, defusing potential controversies.

Clinton administration officials also have not made a big fuss over human rights violations. While the 11-year sentence imposed on student leader Wang Dan drew sharp criticism, the issue has not been linked to others.

In all three areas, tensions have lessened over the past few months because of steps taken by Washington, said Robert Ross of Boston College.

"Most of the changes have come from the American side," Ross said.

"But it's not clear that the Chinese are in a position to reciprocate."

Indeed, China has only continued its criticism of American "hegemony" over the past weeks, said David Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University who was visiting Beijing.

With no Chinese leader commanding widespread power or prestige, Beijing has remained wary of the outside world, Shambaugh said, preferring safe and predictable anti-Americanism.

In addition to suspicious leaders, China is also hampered by growing anti-Americanism in the population.

Angered by U.S. support for Taiwan, which many Chinese see as a part of China, a growing number of Chinese believe that the United States is trying to divide China and keep it weak.

A sore spot was U.S. opposition to China's bid to become host of the 2000 Olympics, as well as comments critical of Chinese athletes by NBC television commentators during the Olympics in Atlanta.

Not coincidentally, a series of recent best sellers has been sharply critical of the United States, from this summer's "The China That Can Say No" to this month's "Clinton Administration and the Next Korean War."

While the authors of such books may be extremists, the books' popularity shows they hit a vein, said Banning Garrett, a consultant to the State Department on Sino-U.S. relations.

In some ways, ordinary Chinese may be more anti-American than the country's leadership, which still declares a desire for better relations.

"America faces a friendly government but an unfriendly population," Garrett said, "which is the exact opposite of the situation 10 years ago."

These reasons give little hope that Christopher's visit will yield results other than agreements to continue meeting.

Indeed, few expect any of the underlying problems -- trade, weapons proliferation and human rights -- to ever be completely solved.

The risk of such a stalemate, Shambaugh said, is that Americans may become impatient with China and turn away, leaving the world's most populous country and a rising superpower outside the international order.

"They are going to remain a truculent and suspicious partner," Shambaugh said.

"The worry is that the United States may turn back. We offered a hand, but they didn't take it. This is a real turning point right now."

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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