Fault lines in China relations

Albright visiting after U.S. report on rights abuses

February 27, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright arrives here tomorrow seeking to shore up relations just eight months after President Clinton's Beijing summit seemed to cement a new era of cooperation.

In recent months, China and the United States have clashed over a wide range of issues, including the transfer of technology, the repression of democratic activists and the security of Taiwan.

They are concerns that reflect the different cultures, ideologies and often conflicting interests -- and no easy solutions are foreseen between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one.

Underscoring the recent strains, the State Department told Congress yesterday that Beijing has reversed the political openness that followed Clinton's visit in June and launched a renewed crackdown on dissent, including new controls on the Internet and forced closings of newspapers.

"The most recent issues are symptoms of what will continue to be a difficult relationship," says Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College. "It was unreasonable to expect that the summits would usher in a period of conflict-free cooperation."

Albright will spend Monday meeting with top officials here. Talks are expected to touch on concerns about North Korea, human rights and plans for a U.S. missile defense system that could include Taiwan. Albright will focus on arrangements for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's trip to the United States in April.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky will arrive on Tuesday for negotiations on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Fighting long odds, U.S. officials are pushing China to reduce tariffs and open more of its markets to foreign investment to gain entry into the international body, which sets the world's trading rules.

Barshefsky will also discuss China's staggering $57 billion trade surplus with the United States. The Chinese surplus ranked second only to Japan's last year, according to U.S. officials.

Relations between China and the United States peaked last summer during Clinton's nine-day visit here -- the first by a U.S. president since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square.

Despite sharp Republican criticism back home, Clinton obliged his hosts and attended a welcoming ceremony on the edge of the square. Seeming to return the favor, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made the unprecedented decision to televise their joint news conference, which included spirited debate on such sensitive subjects as the 1989 military crackdown, human rights and the status of Tibet.

In October, China gave another encouraging sign and endorsed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which supports free speech and freedom of association. Taking the regime at its word, political dissidents forged ahead with plans to form China's first opposition political party, only to receive lengthy jail terms.

The crackdown provided ammunition to administration critics, who see Clinton's policy of engaging China -- rather than isolating it -- as encouraging further human rights abuses.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 99-0 to urge Clinton to sponsor a resolution condemning China's human rights record next month at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.

After the crackdown on dissidents, relations between the two countries suffered another blow in late December when a congressional committee determined that past sales of satellites to China had provided the nation with sensitive technology, which could threaten U.S. security.

On Tuesday, the administration blocked Hughes Electronics Corp. from selling $450 million worth of satellites to China, drawing angry protests from Beijing.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the move was "groundless and will have a negative effect on normal, China-U.S. economic and trade exchanges and cooperation."

Of greater concern to the Chinese, though, is Taiwan.

The Clinton administration has talked of including Taiwan in a missile defense umbrella with Japan. The system would be designed to protect Japan from Stalinist North Korea, which fired a missile over the nation in late August.

The Chinese, though, view Taiwan as a breakaway province and have pledged to take the island back by force if necessary. Anything suggesting a military relationship between Taiwan and the United States drives Chinese leaders to distraction.

"It touches on one of the core national interests of China," says Jia Qingguo, a professor in the school of international studies at Beijing University. "It is considered a major setback in the relationship."

Earlier this month, Taiwan claimed that China had deployed more than 100 new missiles aimed at the island. Pentagon officials said Beijing had increased the sophistication of the weapons pointed at Taiwan, but not their numbers.

Improving ties during this rough period will require a stronger public relations effort by the Chinese government and a less politicized approach to foreign policy in the United States, says Jia.

That won't be easy.

China faces serious threats to stability at home, including rising unemployment, a widening income gap and street protests. The regime, however, has never clearly articulated its internal problems to the outside world.

In Washington's highly partisan environment, almost any policy decision regarding China can have political repercussions. With a national election coming up next year, the stakes will only rise.

"One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. is that it has a democratic system," says Jia, who has a doctorate in international politics from Cornell University. "But in terms of foreign policy, it is one of its greatest weaknesses."

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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