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How do Analysts View Sino-US Relations on the Eve of Hu Jintao's Visit? - 2002-04-25

As China's Vice President Hu Jintao makes his first official visit to the United States, analysts are describing Sino-American relations as good. And they expect them to stay that way - with the usual bumps and bruises.

When Hu Jintao, who is expected to become China's next president, meets with top U.S. officials in Washington Tuesday and Wednesday, the usual areas of disagreement in Sino-American relations are expected to be discussed.

The United States is especially concerned about China's weapons sales to countries that Washington considers destabilizing, its refusal to renounce the possible use of force to retake Taiwan, and its record of human rights abuses.

For its part, China disagrees with U.S. policies in the Middle East and is concerned about expanding American contacts with Taiwan and the increased U.S. presence in Central Asia, an area that China sees as its own sphere of influence.

Despite these areas of disagreement, analysts tend to agree that U.S.-Chinese relations are at a fairly calm stage now. Merle Goldman is a Chinese history specialist at the Fairbanks Center for Asian Research at Harvard University. She said China's cooperation in the U.S. led anti-terrorism campaign has helped ease strains in the relationship.

"Despite all these questions, I would say on the whole that there has been a kind of modus vivendi set up, a kind of relationship set up that I think is moderate. The rhetoric is moderate. There is an effort to work with the Chinese certainly on this question of terrorism, but on other issues as well. There are tensions. There's no question about it, tensions particularly over Taiwan and even on human rights issues. But on the whole, I think that this relationship has taken a much more moderate course than one would have anticipated at the begining of the Bush administration," Ms. Goldman said.

When President Bush came to office, analysts in the United States expected his administration to downplay the U.S.-China relationship and emphasize ties with American allies such as Japan and South Korea. Professor Goldman said Mr. Bush was not able to do that because China and the Taiwan issue loom so large in the U.S. foreign policy arena.

Washington-based Asia consultant Bonnie Glaser said the Bush administration at first tried to play down China's importance in the world, but three months into Mr. Bush's presidency a U.S. reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. And Ms. Glaser said that forced the administration to pay more attention to Beijing.

"I believe that this trend was reinforced after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when of course we wanted to have China in our list of countries that were cooperating with the United States in the war against terror," she said. "Bush seems to have come around to view China as perhaps more important than he did before he came into office. My conclusion is that Bush has changed his thinking about China's importance, that he has come to see China as an important country that he does want to have a good relationship with."

She said the war on terrorism, as well as new cooperation on trade issues, have provided some glue for Sino-U.S. relations.

China specialist Charles Horner has said the current stability in relations is not because of cooperation on terrorism or anything else so specific. Mr. Horner, with the Hudson Institute in Washington, said it's because China feels it now has a comfortable situation in the world.

"Indeed, it's more benign than it's been for centuries, and it seems to be improving by the day. There is no longer a Soviet Union. Japan seems to be in a case of stasis, if not decline," he said. "The important regional countries in the area - be they South Korea, or Taiwan or Indonesia, or Southeast Asia - are all being drawn more closely into the Chinese ambit, and the relations among all of those with China are improving. The United States, itself, seems now reasonably absorbed in other things, not merely the war on terrorism, but in other parts of the world. On our side, we have developed a sense that we still have considerable leverage in this relationship and that we could develop more if we had to over time. In other words, it serves both of us right now to keep going along in the way that it's been going. That would exist, incidentally, regardless of the war on terrorism."

Mr. Horner said there are still serious questions the two sides must face, but leaders in both Beijing and Washington recognize the importance of the relationship. And he said neither side right now is worried about the possibility of a catastrophic breakdown in relations.