Chinese President Jiang Zemin is visiting the United States. The high point of the trip is a stop at President George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch, where the two men will indulge in summit rituals. The presidents will probably spend more time eating barbecue and posing for photographs than they will talk business. Nonetheless, the summit is important: There are pressing issues on the agenda. More significant, the meeting will help keep the Sino-U.S. relationship on its current trajectory. After a difficult start, bilateral relations between the two countries are as good as they have ever been. The challenge is maintaining that positive relationship as the two countries grapple with important international issues.
Until a month or so ago, the main purpose of this week’s visit was to reward Mr. Jiang for his efforts on behalf of the U.S.-China relationship. The Crawford invitation was a particularly prized possession: They are issued only to Mr. Bush’s closest “friends” and allies. Mr. Jiang’s visit puts him in an elite group with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The symbolism is especially important as Mr. Jiang prepares to exit the Chinese political scene. China’s National Party Congress was moved back so that he could visit the U.S. while still wearing the hats of president and Communist Party secretary general. And hats are important: This visit to Texas will recall former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous trip to Texas in 1989, when he was photographed wearing a cowboy hat. The lineage is important for Mr. Jiang, who is eager to claim his place in China’s political hierarchy with Mao Zedong and Deng. In more concrete terms, one of the key features of his legacy will be the effort to put relations with the U.S. back on track after the Tiananmen killings of 1989.
Contrary to most expectations, he has succeeded. After a rocky start last year, Mr. Jiang seems to have established a positive working relationship with Mr. Bush. Last year’s EP-3 incident, which involved the collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter, alerted each government to the potential dangers of a confrontational approach to the other. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 provided China with an opportunity to reach out — Mr. Jiang was one of the first world leaders to contact Mr. Bush — and Mr. Bush responded. The U.S. president has since made two visits to China and tried to draw China into a strategic dialogue. That effort is still only beginning, but the two countries have enough shared interests to be optimistic about the eventual results.
The two men’s 90-minute discussion will try to find that common ground. High on the agenda will be Iraq and North Korea. In both cases, Mr. Bush will attempt to win Chinese support for his position. He wants a tough U.N. Security Council resolution that will force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to open his country to international weapons inspectors. While Mr. Jiang has reservations about giving the United Nations too much power to intervene in a nation’s affairs, he is also worried about maintaining the authority of the world body — especially if the alternative is a U.S. government flexing its muscles. Mr. Bush will argue that Mr. Hussein poses a threat both to the U.N. and to regional security. In truth, China’s main concern is not being isolated in world councils; it will not veto a tough U.N. resolution against Iraq, but it is also unlikely to press for strong action. Quiet support will make Mr. Bush happy.
North Korean proliferation poses a different problem because it would have strategic implications for Northeast Asia. China does not want another nuclear power in the neighborhood, but it also does not want to see a hard line that might provoke North Korea and trigger instability. China is reported to have influence in Pyongyang, and Mr. Bush will ask Mr. Jiang to use it to get North Korea to comply with its nuclear agreements. The U.S. preference for a diplomatic solution to the problem will make it easier for China to support the U.S. line.
There will be other issues on the agenda. Counterterrorism cooperation, which has been the backbone of the current rapprochement, will be applauded and pursued. Taiwan, human rights and proliferation will also be mentioned. Given the overall tone of the meeting — positive and forward-looking — they are unlikely to get a lot of time or attention.
The new positive tone to the U.S.-China relationship should be nurtured. The two countries are too big and too important to regional peace and stability to be at odds for long. The prospect of a good working relationship does not pose a threat to U.S. relations with Japan. In fact, Tokyo should seize this opportunity to move forward with relations with Beijing. The Japan-U.S. security treaty makes a trilateral dialogue essential.
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