U.S. ambassador to China faces daunting task

Former four-star admiral comes to diplomatic post at politically delicate time

January 28, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- With Taiwan's presidential election less than two months away, the newly installed U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph W, Prueher, emphasized yesterday the need to strengthen Sino-U.S. military contacts to avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Prueher speaks with some experience. As a four-star admiral, he was head of the U.S. Pacific Command four years ago when the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the region in a show of force as Taiwan was preparing for its first direct presidential election. China -- which views Taiwan as a renegade province -- tried to intimidate Taiwanese voters by firing missiles off the coast. Prueher said that despite the gravity of the situation, he had no contact with Chinese military leaders.

"I didn't know anyone in China to talk to," he said.

Prueher, a plain-spoken career naval officer from Tennessee, took over the ambassador's job six weeks ago, succeeding another Tennessean, former Sen. James R. Sasser, who left in July. Appointed toward the end of the Clinton presidency and at a difficult time in Sino-U.S. relations, Prueher steps into one of the nation's toughest and most sensitive ambassadorial posts.

Prueher, 57, said he expects to serve a couple of years and act as a bridge to the next administration.

He said he would make human rights a priority, but that he would try to engage Chinese leaders rather than criticize them at every turn as some on Capitol Hill might prefer. He said he would discuss human rights "sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, but always steadfastly." But, he added, "I've committed to our host not to lecture on this subject."

Human rights is a fundamental issue for many Americans and a sensitive one for China's authoritarian regime. Last year was a particularly repressive one here as the government jailed activists who tried to form the nation's first opposition party and outlawed the spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong.

In addition to improving relations with China, Prueher also wants to improve the lives of American diplomats who work in this city of more than 12 million.

Prueher said he is trying to secure land for a new embassy and find better housing for staff, some of whom refuse to return to Beijing for subsequent tours because of the living conditions. "We want to get conditions that they will come back to," Prueher said.

The United States, he said, needs a "First World nation's footprint in Beijing, instead of working in a Third World nation's footprint."

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