Terror war bolsters U.S.-China relations

But problems remain as Bush visit nears

February 16, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Sometimes it takes a common enemy to bring together China and the United States.

A shared distrust of the Soviet Union brought President Richard M. Nixon here 30 years ago this week for his groundbreaking meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. When President Bush arrives in the Chinese capital Thursday, Sino-American relations will have the benefit of recognizing a new common foe - terrorism.

An unexpected side effect of the attacks Sept. 11 is the new stability in the relationship between the world's most populous nation and its most powerful one. Six months ago, the Bush administration appeared to view China as a potential threat. Since September, Washington has temporarily shelved those concerns, turning its attentions to militant Islam and what Bush calls "an axis of evil" made up of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

China will be the third stop on Bush's Asia tour after he visits Japan and South Korea, America's most important allies in the region. Bush, who is scheduled to leave the United States today, intends to press forward in his war on terrorism, expanded to include a pressure campaign against regimes that possess or want to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

South Korea's government worries that Bush's denunciation of North Korea in his State of the Union address will seriously damage efforts by President Kim Dae Jung to pursue a dialogue with the reclusive North Koreans. But after five years, Kim's "sunshine" campaign has lost popularity at home, and South Koreans may be receptive to Bush's tougher tone on North Korea.

No longer will the United States be prepared to pay North Korea with subsidies to engage in dialogue, officials in Washington say. Although they're prepared to talk to Pyongyang, they say, the talks will have to deal with the North's missile proliferation and its troops massed close to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

In Japan, Bush is expected to press Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gently but firmly to move ahead with serious economic reforms, particularly in banking, while voicing appreciation for Japan's anti-terrorism support.

China, which is battling a separatist movement among Muslims in its northwestern province of Xinjiang, has quietly supported U.S. anti-terror efforts in hopes of turning around its most critical diplomatic relationship.

No breakthroughs are expected during Bush's two-day visit, which was postponed from the fall because of the terrorism attacks. The summit will include a news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and a speech at Beijing's Qinghua University, both to be broadcast live on China Central Television.

As a presidential candidate, Bush called China a "strategic competitor" in deliberate contrast to President Bill Clinton's description of China as a potential "strategic partner." Bush's phrasing alarmed leaders here who saw the new administration as hostile. After a rough start, China's efforts to smooth relations appear to be paying off.

Instead of criticizing U.S. military intervention, as it might be expected to do, Beijing backed the war in Afghanistan and offered $150 million for the country's reconstruction. Then, last month, in a move that appeared timed to warm ties before the summit, China's leading foreign policy official invited members of Taiwan's ruling, pro-independence party to visit the mainland.

The invitation was an unprecedented olive branch to Taiwan, which Bush has vowed to defend from attack and China has threatened to take by force if necessary.

Although the terrorism attacks offer China and the United States more diplomatic breathing room, the two countries' many disagreements remain unchanged. They include human rights, domestic political reform, missile proliferation, and the repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Christians.

When Bush addresses the Chinese people, he will be speaking to a nation deeply ambivalent about the United States and gripped by a historic sense of victimization. Many Chinese, especially young people, admire America's high standards of living, political freedoms and pop culture. At the same time, they detest what they see as a bullying foreign policy bent on keeping China down.

One of Bush's challenges is to convince them otherwise.

"If he wants to raise the questions of human rights and nonproliferation, he should give some credit to the progress China has achieved," said Jin Canrong, a specialist on the United States at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Over the past dozen years, the attitudes of many Chinese youth toward America have shifted from adoration to distrust. When students seized Tiananmen Square during the protests of 1989, they built a replica of the Statue of Liberty, which they called "The Goddess of Democracy." After the attacks on the World Trade Center, some young people here clapped and cheered, delighted by what they saw as a payback for Washington's arrogance.

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