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Op-Ed

Powell in China: Modest Progress Will Be Better Than None

High Chinese expectations await the arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell in Beijing this Saturday

General Powell’s visit is a step forward for the relationship,after the April midair collision of military aircraft and the high-profile detention and espionage trials of U.S.-associated scholars in China. His talks will pave the way for President George W. Bush’s visit to Beijing in October, which is much anticipated by Chinese leaders eager to shine on the world stage.

But the Chinese side is setting itself up for disappointment. The reality is that the relationship is troubled across a range of issues large and small. The coming senior-level meetings can make only modest progress in dispelling them. Many on the U.S. side resent China’s vitriolic mismanagement of the aircraft collision incident, and see that as a sign of more assertive Chinese hostility toward American alliances and the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific.

Recent congressional reports spotlight Beijing’s record of broken nonproliferation promises and call for punitive measures, including stricter limitations on technology trade.

Beijing’s persistent refusal to engage the democratically elected leadership in Taipei constructively fuels concern in Washington that China remains tightly wedded to a coercive approach against Taiwan.

And despite Beijing’s release of scholars accused of spying, it is clear that the Bush administration supports a more publicly critical position on China’s poor human rights record. General Powell said as much on his way to Beijing.

The long-standing mainstream U.S. consensus in support of economic engagement with China, and the conviction that it will bring positive change in the domestic and international politics of the Chinese government, face a growing challenge in Washington.

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With only the slimmest of mandates, and needing to balance sharply divided approaches toward China not only within his party but also within his own administration, Mr. Bush is constrained from taking what Beijing would see as some strategically significant steps forward in the relationship. Voices supporting a less accommodating China policy gain a sympathetic hearing with the Bush administration.

In China, too, despite an upbeat welcome and red carpet treatment for U.S. officials, doubts persist about the wisdom of accommodating American interests, given concerns about U.S. “hegemonism” and potentially hostile designs toward the mainland.

These doubts are muted for the moment in favor of more positive atmospherics for the Powell and Bush visits. But Chinese military strategists are at best uncertain about how to view numerous challenges of strategic significance to China emanating from the United States-missile defense, Taiwan arms sales, a strengthened U.S.-Japanese alliance, improved U.S.-Indian relations and a supposed shift of American strategic attention to problems in East Asia.

The jockeying for power in the run-up to next year’s Communist Party leadership transition only exacerbates such divisions in Chinese political circles, as no one can afford to be saddled with accusations of being soft on issues of fundamental national interest. Despite these constraints, discussions with Chinese and U.S. officials suggest the possibility of small steps forward during the coming high-level visits.

Anticipating U.S.-Russian understandings on missile defense and strategic arms limitations, Chinese rhetoric opposing American missile defense plans has been toned down, and Beijing looks forward to continued consultations on this issue. The U.S. side counts on a resumption of the moribund bilateral nonproliferation dialogue. It also expects that Beijing will fully meet its recent pledge to halt missile-related exports.

Beijing hopes to receive a firm and public reiteration of the U.S. “one-China” policy, including no American support for Taiwan independence. It seeks a favorable clarification of what the Bush administration means when it calls China a “strategic competitor.”

The two sides will find common ground on environmental issues, combating HIV/AIDS, promoting greater respect for the rule of law and assuring China’s smooth entry and participation in the World Trade Organization. These smaller steps, if achieved, will be modest but are certainly worth pursuing. Indeed, lower expectations, modest achievements and a franker assessment of the many problems that divide Washington and Beijing should govern this next phase in stabilizing relations.

To think otherwise, as many hopeful Chinese analysts and officials seem to do, would probably lead to disappointment, recrimination and another downturn in a pivotal and uncertain relationship

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