- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

Credit Wen Jiabao with excellent timing.

China’s prime minister meets with President Bush at the White House tomorrow, as the highlight of his first visit to the United States since taking office in March, just as the two countries are enjoying their best relations in years.

While trade disputes and Taiwan may make for some difficult moments during the meeting, Sino-American relations have been bolstered by cooperation against terrorism and a Chinese economic and diplomatic charm offensive in East Asia.

James J. Przystup, a former Defense Department adviser and now a senior fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies, recalled the warm welcome given the late Deng Xiaoping when he visited the United States in the late 1970s.

“I can’t think of a top Chinese official who has come to Washington in a stronger position since then,” Mr. Przystup said.

After a rocky beginning, U.S.-Chinese relations have warmed considerably under Mr. Bush. U.S. officials have been pleased by China’s help against terrorism since the September 11 attacks and have been effusive in praise of China’s role in attempts to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis.

“The general trend of Sino-U.S. relations, it must be said, is generally good,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, citing increased trade and investment and joint efforts on terrorism and nonproliferation.

Mr. Wen, 60, and President Hu Jintao are the standard-bearers for the so-called “Fourth Generation” of China’s Communist Party leadership — technocratic “reformists” attempting to preserve the party’s political dominance while extending the spectacular economic growth of recent years.

John Tkacik, a former Foreign Service officer in China and now a researcher in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, describes Mr. Wen, a trained geologist, as “urbane, scholarly, and intellectual.”

“The big question for China watchers has always been: How did a nice guy like this rise to the very top of a communist dictatorship?” Mr. Tkacik said last week.

In a pre-trip interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Wen parried questions over the future of Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, by quoting Abraham Lincoln and his “house divided” speech and mixing in references to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King.

Still, analysts say Taiwan is likely to present the most delicate moments of Mr. Wen’s visit. China’s military and political leaders have reacted angrily to a national referendum Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has proposed for March, which some say could ask voters if they support independence.

A leading Chinese general warned last week that China would forcibly stop Taiwanese independence moves, even in the face of international condemnation or a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

But Mr. Chen reiterated his intention at a campaign rally in Taiwan yesterday, saying, “To ensure peace and democracy and prevent our children from having to go to the battlefield, we will hold Taiwan’s first referendum on the election day of March 20 next year.”

Mr. Tkacik said the prime minister’s primary focus is not foreign policy, but economic modernization and reform of China’s creaky financial and agricultural sectors.

He has made far sharper comments on recent U.S. moves to address the massive Chinese trade surplus, resisting U.S. efforts to revalue China’s currency to help U.S. imports and declaring himself “shocked” at Washington’s decision to increase tariffs on selected Chinese textiles.

Bush administration officials say they plan to press Mr. Wen over China’s human rights record, which the State Department said recently has deteriorated in the months since Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen took power.

The human rights group Amnesty International on Friday urged Mr. Bush to press the issue in his White House meeting with Mr. Wen, calling on the United States to sponsor a resolution critical of China’s record at next year’s session of the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

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