'Reconciliation summit' with China Jiang's visit: Two countries too great to ignore their need for good relations.

October 26, 1997

THE FIRST visit of China's leader to Washington in 12 years and a resumption of high-level diplomacy after China's domestic repressions eight years ago, President Jiang Zemin's week-long descent will take in shrines of democracy and bastions of capitalism as well as the White House. He will hear the protests of American and Chinese dissidents trailing him. The exercise offers him more benefits than President Clinton.

China's leader will display himself as the heir of Mao Tse-tung as ratified by the recent 15th Communist Party congress. He is upholding the legacy of Deng Xiaoping in pressing economic reform while preventing political reform. This trip allows him to demonstrate his authority before the rest of the world, and before the 1.2 billion Chinese at home.

This is billed as a summit of reconciliation. Indications are that China's leader wants to soothe the relationship, not ratchet up confrontation. A few gestures on the human rights front may be expected. Conciliatory noises have been made at Taiwan. A trade delegation preceded him so that he may announce purchases from American firms.

The trip coincides with drastic enlargement of the balance of trade in China's favor, part of which might be redressed if the U.S. gives up cold war restraints against exports of nuclear power machinery to China. It follows the collapse of Hong Kong markets just after China acquired them. China seeks U.S. support for joining the World Trade Organization, which should be conditionally forthcoming, and U.S. acceptance of its protectionist policies, which should not.

What President Clinton has to gain is less apparent. Accusations of coddling the butchers of Tiananmen Square, of selling out the Tibetans, of insufficiently protecting American interests in copyright protection and access to markets. He could win plaudits for dressing down his guest, without helping these causes.

The reality is that China is the world's most populous country, most rapidly developing military power and most rapidly expanding economy. Its capacity for disturbing the peace is immense. It is importing military technology from Russia. It disputes claims to oil-laden seabeds with neighbors and claims Taiwan as integral to China. (The U.S. has never denied its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan or Tibet.) It shares an immense border with Russia, whose future attitude is problematic, and it is disquieted by North Korea.

These are reasons why Washington needs a mature working relationship and candid communication with Beijing. Not sentimental and not grandstanding. Engagement is needed not as a reward for any supposed niceness on China's part but because of China's importance in all spheres and the dangers inherent in a bad relationship. China, indisputably, is there.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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