BEIJING -- The Clinton administration has launched a new effort to try to improve the deteriorating U.S. relations with China.
The diplomatic overture -- which contrasts with the president's tough line on China during his election campaign last year -- is being marked by high-profile visits by U.S. officials.
These missions are aimed at involving Chinese officials in high-level talks to try to find ways to stem the growing frictions over human rights, trade and arms proliferation problems.
Setting the stage
And they will set the stage for the first meeting between the President Clinton and Chinese President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle Nov. 19 and 20.
The United States is hoping this informal summit will produce concrete steps to improve a relationship that markedly deteriorated over the summer, with China appearing to grow more uncompromising in the face of stepped-up U.S. political pressure.
But firm signs that China is willing to take major steps -- from curtailing its arms sales to accounting for its political prisoners -- have yet to emerge. And U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher yesterday said that the United States could not extend China's Most Favored Nation trading status beyond June unless there is an improvement in human rights.
"It's a mixed record at the present time," Mr. Christopher said of China's behavior. "There's some discouraging pieces of news," he told a conference of senior business executives.
"The visits to China from the Clinton administration at very high levels will increase and intensify," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, upon concluding his own five-day visit yesterday. "This is because it is the desire of our president to improve bilateral relations. . . .
"You can't preach and criticize standing 7,000 miles away. You have to engage on a more personal level, and that is why [the president is] trying to strengthen his policy and send Cabinet members and others over here to discuss these difficulties in a more direct way."
Mr. Espy, who focused primarily on trade issues while in Beijing, is the first Clinton Cabinet official to visit China. He claimed no major breakthroughs, though he said the United States now is talking with China about dismantling its market barriers to U.S. food imports with the aim of resolving the problem by year's end.
His visit was preceded by the resumption last week of Sino-U.S. talks on human rights during a visit by an assistant secretary of state, key talks for determining if China will qualify for an MFN extension next year.
Trade and arms talks
Among those expected to visit in the next few weeks are Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Assistant Defense Secretary Charles Freeman. Mr. Bentsen likely would focus on the growing U.S. trade deficit with China and Mr. Freeman on arms proliferation.
In the short term, Mr. Freeman's visit could be the most important, as it would mark the resumption of Sino-U.S. military cooperation. These exchanges were broken off after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators, and recent reports from Washington indicate that the U.S. military is eager to resume the contacts.
Sino-American relations worsened this summer, particularly because of U.S. allegations that China sold missiles to Pakistan and was shipping chemical weapon components to Iran.
China reacted strongly to U.S. economic sanctions imposed over the alleged missile sales, calling the United States a "self-styled world cop." It reacted even more indignantly when the U.S. claim that a Chinese freighter was ferrying chemicals to Iran turned out be wrong.
China then exploded a nuclear bomb in an underground test October 5, defying pleas from Mr. Clinton to adhere to an informal world moratorium on such tests.
But a Western diplomat here predicted these frictions are just the type of diplomatic "surface turbulence" that increased high-level contacts "will put to rest very quickly."
The Clinton administration "is getting a firmer grip on where it wants to go with China," the envoy said, adding that the president's coming meeting with Mr. Jiang "gives both sides an incentive to get the relationship working better."