Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji came to Washington at the worst possible time, what with the current anti-China feeding frenzy in the press and on Capitol Hill. China’s recent spate of human-rights violations and alleged espionage activities have made it open season on China — “innocent until proven guilty” has little weight in the court of public opinion.

Nonetheless, Zhu’s visit provides the opportunity for a major step forward in Sino-U.S. relations, if the Clinton administration is prepared to engage China’s number two leader (behind President Jiang Zemin) in a much-needed strategic dialogue in addition to anticipated economic discussions. The point is neither to demonize China nor to let it off the hook when its behavior violates international norms, but to seriously discuss the issues that threaten to put our nations on a collision course.

Strategic partnership. The first things both sides need to do, in the interest of clarity, is to refrain from ever again using the term “strategic partnership.” Sino-U.S. relations do not, and are not likely to ever, constitute a strategic relationship by almost anyone’s definition of that term. What is needed is dialogue on the issues that divide us. What we should be seeking is a accommodation in the positive sense of the term, i.e., we must learn how to agree to disagree in a less confrontational way.

WTO membership. Chinese membership in the WTO serves America’s geopolitical as well as economic interests, provided China accepts reasonable rules of entry, which it appears increasingly willing to do. But the administration should not push for a final agreement unless it is willing to expend the political capital necessary to gain Congressional backing for China’s accession — or at least to prevent Congress from undermining the effort, as several members (including North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms) have sworn to do. Entry is best, but delay is better than striking a deal that we cannot deliver.

Human rights. China both deserves and expects to be criticized on human rights, but let’s put this into perspective. Relatively speaking, the average person in China enjoys greater freedom of movement and expression and a greater sense of personal security than at any time in China’s 5,000 year history, and Zhu deserves a fair share of the credit for improving the quality of life of the average Chinese, continued abuses notwithstanding. While former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong may have given Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a run for his money, today’s leaders are considerably more tolerant.

Kosovo. And, speaking of Milosevic, Kosovo is one area where the two sides have already agreed to disagree: The Chinese have been among the most outspoken critics of the NATO action. Zhu should be challenged to become part of the solution, however, rather than just being allowed to complain about the problem. Would China be prepared to put peacekeeping forces in Kosovo if a new ceasefire could be achieved? (An equally good question is, would Washington accept this?)

South China Sea. I can imagine no Chinese human-rights violation that would lead us into war with China today. However, the expansion of Chinese military facilities on disputed Mischief Reef in the South China Sea could trigger a conflict, given the threat this poses to a U.S. treaty ally, the Philippines. The current U.S. response — that Chinese actions to date do not threaten freedom of navigation — misses the point. Beijing is violating its agreed-upon code of conduct with Manila and reneging on its promise to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to avoid potentially destabilizing actions. China must understand that its failure to honor its promises in the South China Sea casts considerable doubt on China’s future intentions.

Taiwan. Taiwan continues to be China’s core security issue and it is important for the U.S. to continue to recognize this. There is little need for U.S. President Bill Clinton to repeat China’s desired “three no’s” — no independence, no “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” and no Taiwan participation in governmental forums — but he should underscore America’s fourth no: no use of force. The U.S. also needs to argue that recent Chinese comments about setting a deadline for reunification are dangerous and potentially destabilizing.

U.S.-Japan alliance. The Chinese see no need to be subtle in explaining how important Taiwan is to them. The U.S. needs to be equally direct in explaining that the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and efforts to revitalize this relationship (such as the revised defense guidelines) represent the core U.S. security interest in Asia and that Chinese attacks on the U.S. alliance system are as offensive and threatening to us as our support for Taiwan independence would be to them.

Missiles. I recently chaired an international conference on preventive diplomacy. The first Chinese speaker went on for 10 minutes about the dangers of theater missile defense. As others have no doubt experienced, whatever the topic or question, the Chinese response will include an attack on TMD as threatening and destabilizing. The most appropriate response is to challenge China to enter into a dialogue about the threat to Asian peace and security posed by all types of missiles — offensive and defensive. As U.S. Secretary Madeleine Albright recently observed, it makes more sense to talk about existing threats than theoretical countermeasures. We should be prepared to enter into a strategic dialogue with China about both offensive and defensive missiles, but not on TMD alone.

There are, of course, many economic issues that will also come up for discussion with China’s economic czar. But given his broad influence over all aspects of Chinese policy we can not afford to allow either these important economic discussions or the inevitable sparing over espionage and human rights detract us from initiating a much-needed strategic dialogue with Zhu as well.

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