Practicality mends China ties with U.S.

Despite differences, each needs the other

September 01, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- A middle-age Chinese mother showed up recently at the apartment of an American friend bearing gifts and fighting tears. Her 15-year-old daughter had been selected for a two-week school trip to the United States -- an extraordinary opportunity for a Chinese teen-ager.

The U.S. Consulate, however, had rejected her visa application out of fear she wouldn't return. The woman presented her American acquaintances with a small vase and a bowl. Then she placed $250 -- a large sum by Chinese standards -- on the coffee table.

Is there anyone you know who can help? she asked.

What a difference a couple of months had made.

When NATO cruise missiles struck the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia last May, the woman -- like most Chinese -- was furious with the United States. Not long after, she showed up with a paper target taped to her blouse. Her daughter stopped drinking Coca-Cola in protest.

The Coke boycott, though, lasted only a week and the girl's desire to see Washington eventually outweighed her anger at the government. With Sino-U.S. relations at their lowest point in years, the family's pragmatic about-face offers some insight and, perhaps, hope as the countries try to repair the current rift.

Nearly four months after the airstrike, Washington and Beijing appear to be getting their relationship back on track, even if that track is a roller coaster, as one Western diplomat here puts it.

White House officials said last week that China might be ready to resume talks on entry into the World Trade Organization. This month, Chinese President Jiang Zemin will meet with President Clinton during the Asia-Pacific economic summit in New Zealand.

Relations are beginning to improve because they have to. The United States and China need each other.

Beijing wants a peaceful international environment so it can focus on building its economy without outside distractions. Rapid development requires a working relationship with the United States, the world's dominant military and economic power.

The United States is China's third-largest trading partner and has close alliances with its wealthy neighbors -- Japan, South Korea and archrival Taiwan. China's best students yearn to work for U.S. joint venture companies or attend American universities. From 1996 to 1998, the number of U.S. visas issued to Chinese students rose from 5,723 to 7,134.

Moreover, if China were to abandon Jiang's strategy of developing closer ties with the United States, where would it turn?

In the wake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, some here have suggested that Beijing distance itself from the United States and forge a stronger relationship with Russia. Last week, Jiang met with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow and urged joint opposition to U.S. global dominance.

But Russia, as the Chinese often say, is their worst nightmare -- an economic disaster with revolving-door prime ministers. Trade and foreign investment, which fell by 20 percent during the first half of the year, are critical to China's smooth transition from a command economy to a market-oriented one.

Russia is in no shape to help.

One need only stroll through Beijing's once-thriving Russian Market to appreciate the limitations of a Sino-Soviet partnership. Since the ruble's dive last year, the giant retail center that sells stuffed toys, fur coats and other clothing to Russian traders has practically collapsed. Padlocks hang on the doors of many of the more than 1,000 stalls. Vendors lounge in chairs, reading newspapers or fanning themselves as they wait for the Russian economy to recover.

"Economically, militarily, strategically, we're the only game in town," said Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College.

China's wounded pride

A monopoly, though, does not guarantee good relations. Some Western diplomats here say the United States needs to do more to heal China's wounded pride after the bombing and treat it with the respect it thinks it deserves as a rising power.

The Clinton administration took a step in that direction last week when it paid $4.5 million to compensate the survivors and the families of the three Chinese journalists who died in the embassy bombing. Doing more, however, would invite political fallout at home, especially in the wake of accusations of Chinese nuclear spying, which have yet to be resolved.

"You want to give the Chinese leadership more face," said a Western diplomat, "but politically if you do that in the United States, `coddling dictators' becomes the leitmotif in Congress."

The NATO attack sparked the biggest Chinese protests against the West since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), as thousands of people hurled stones at the U.S. and British embassies in Beijing. The demonstrations underscored another potential threat to smooth Sino-U.S. relations: Chinese nationalism.

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