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US-Sino Relationship Improves After Rough Start in 2001 - 2001-12-21


Officials in Beijing and Washington say relations between China and the United States are good right now, after some serious strains earlier this year. The two sometime rivals found common ground in the fight against terrorism. But this warmer relationship faces some challenges.

Sino-American relations got off to a rough start early in 2001, as the new Bush administration took a critical look at Washington's engagement policy with Beijing. Ties frayed further when military planes from the two nations collided in April, sparking a major diplomatic squabble, and fanning anti-American sentiment in China.

Many Chinese, including this delivery driver, were furious about the incident. This man says that if Chinese leader Mao Zedong were alive, China would take tough action against the United States.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue tells VOA both sides worked hard to smooth over the strains. "We've seen many high level exchanges between out two countries, and the most important meeting was the very successful meeting between President Jiang and President Bush in Shanghai [in October]," she says.

Secretary of State Colin Powell also visited China in October, reminding hardliners in both nations of the vital trade links between the two nations, and shared interests, such as peace on the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Powell specifically listed improved trade, China's membership in the World Trade Organization, and the fight against terrorism as high points. "Our relationship is thriving in a number of different areas. ... Because we do have a friendly relationship, we can speak candidly about the areas where we disagree and move forward on the areas where we do agree," he said.

The disagreements include China's human rights practices, Beijing's alleged sales of weapons technology, and China's worry that proposed U.S. missile defenses will neutralize Beijing's relatively small arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Chinese officials say Taiwan is the "core" and most difficult issue in Sino-American relations. Beijing says Taiwan is part of China and has threatened military action, if the wealthy, democratic island declares independence. The Bush Administration has pledged to help defend Taiwan and sells it arms.

But after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, bilateral disputes took a back seat to a multilateral effort to combat terrorism. And Chinese President Jiang won gratitude from Washington for his political support. "We condemn, in the strongest terms, the [terror] attack [on the United States] as an affront to peace, prosperity and the security of all people of all faiths of every nation," he said.

But the two nations have different views of how the war on terrorism should be waged and this, according to experts, could be the source of the next conflict in Sino-American relations.

Beijing complains that Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province have used bombings and kidnappings in a campaign against Chinese rule. Chinese officials say the world should condemn attacks on China just the same as any other kind of international terrorism.

But human rights groups say China overreacts to the relatively small and disorganized terror groups based in Xinjiang, with police cracking down on entire communities instead of carefully seeking out the individuals who commit violent acts.

And President Bush has warned that the war on terrorism is not an excuse to unfairly target minority groups.

The war on terrorism has also brought new tensions to the surface.

China expert Steve Goldstein, at Smith College in the United States, says the current anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan has prompted Washington to greatly strengthen ties with Pakistan, a traditional Chinese ally. But he says most worrisome to China's military is the ease with which the United States, apparently, defeated the legendarily tough Afghan fighters. "The Chinese Army has to be looking at the ... technology and competence of the American military and drawing some of the conclusions that they did after [the Gulf War in] Kuwait and re-thinking ... this growing confidence that ... they could actually stand down the United States if they had to," he says.

Nevertheless, both analysts and officials say relations between China and the United States are pretty good - for now. Not as good as in the last years of the Clinton administration, but far better than at the beginning of President Bush's tenure, when the new administration was trying to send a message of toughness to Beijing.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001

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