- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

"We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies," Lord Palmerston told the British House of Commons in 1848. "Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

Lord Palmerston's quotable statement is as true of the United States and China, as it was of the British Empire over a century-and-a-half ago. We can expect a clear display of pure national interest at work on both sides on Friday in Crawford, Texas, where leaders of the two countries will be celebrating the latest warming trend in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Pragmatism is not always a pretty sight, and that is what this will be all about.

It has been a relationship with its ups and downs. Foes after the Chinese revolution, the two countries became friendlier after Richard Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972. Jimmy Carter later transferred U.S. official recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan to the People's Republic of China, communist China.

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 resulted in a severe chill, and the 1990s saw a strained relationship develop in which human-rights abuses, China's military buildup and aspirations for WTO membership all were featured prominently. The Clinton administration liked euphemistically to characterize the U.S. relationship with China as one of "strategic partners." President Bush, on his election in 2000, more realistically rephrased this as "strategic competitors." In fact, as recently as last year, China was considered by many in Washington to be the major foreign-policy challenge for the United States.

Relations with the new Bush administration got off to a bad start in April 2001 two years after the Clinton administration had bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade when an American surveillance plane flying in international airspace close to the Chinese coast was intercepted by Chinese fighters and forced to land on a Chinese island. The American crew of 24 were held hostage for two weeks.

But times have changed, and both sides now see a need for more stable relations and cooperation. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were invited to Crawford for plaid-shirts-and-denim summits, the Chinese have been angling for an invitation of their own. Jiang Zemin will be the second Chinese head of state to visit Texas, the first being Deng Xiaoping in 1979.

The United States needs China's cooperation on two critically important issues Iraq and North Korea. Holding a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, China has veto power, and tends traditionally to vote with Russia and France against the United States or abstain. In the current debate over U.N. inspections of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction factories, however, China has kept quiet about its position in anticipation of the Crawford summit.

Complicating U.S. efforts against Iraq, North Korea last week admitted having a nuclear weapons program, after a decade of denial. The United States now needs cooperation from China, South Korea and Japan to choke off aid to the distressed North Korean economy to force Pyongyang to abide by the agreements it signed with the Clinton administration in 1994 on dismantling North Korea's nuclear laboratories.

The Chinese leadership, for its part, has seen an advantage in joining the war against terrorism, having problems of its own with a Muslim minority in Xingjang province. The fact that the U.S. government in August listed the Uighurs, the group in question, as a terrorist organization much pleased China's leaders. At the time, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated in Beijing, "I think the senior leadership of the United States is quite intent on building a good, solid relationship with the People's Republic of China."

Furthermore, Mr. Jiang has good personal reasons for striving for the enhanced stature that a summit with the Americans brings. His successor, expected to be Vice President Hu Jintao, will be chosen at the Chinese Communist Party Congress next month. However, after 13 years in power, Mr. Jiang is not likely to want to give up his influence, if he can help it. He may try to keep one of his titles, commander in chief, for instance. And he will certainly want to protect his legacy authoritarian control combined with economic reform through surrogates on the standing committee of the politburo.

As for the new leadership, of which as yet little is known, it will take a while for power struggles to work themselves out. In the meantime, the United States will have the opportunity to influence the direction of the relationship with this ambitious emerging power. What does seem clear from the developments of the first two years of the Bush administration is that an initially harder line has produced better results than the "engagement" of the Clinton administration, which to the Chinese looked more like weakness than any kind of strategy.


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