WASHINGTON -- As the first presidential visit to China in nearly a decade opens this week, the Asian colossus is poised to play a pivotal part in some of the world's most perilous politics, but many Americans worry which way it will turn.
Whether it's a potentially disastrous Indo-Pakistani nuclear race, hair-trigger tension on the Korean Peninsula or Asia's turbulent finances, China is crucial to stabilizing an area stretching from the Himalayas far into the Pacific.
"The role China chooses to play will powerfully shape the next century," President Clinton asserted recently, making the case for his policy of seeking a "strategic partnership" with the most populous nation.
Yet China's record of human rights violations, devastating pollution and weapons proliferation generates deep suspicion over its intentions -- both among U.S. lawmakers and the American people.
Memories of the horrifying spectacle of hundreds of student protesters being massacred during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy uprising in 1989 -- buttressed by tales of other forms of coercion -- remain vivid here. They are refreshed annually by China's critics on Capitol Hill, who use them to argue against the Clinton administration's policy of maintaining favorable trade terms with the burgeoningChinese economy.
Polls show a majority of Americans "are consistently in favor of sanctions for human rights violations in China," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
But regardless of China's shortcomings from the U.S. perspective, the United States must maintain an active dialogue with a country that is home to one-fifth of the world's population and an increasingly important economy, experts on the region say. Without such a dialogue, they warn, the world could turn very dangerous.
"We're going to have to deal with China as a big player down the road," says Douglas Paal, president of the Asia-Pacific Policy Center, a research institute. "If we're going to do that, we have to plan for it now."
As the clearest case in point, Clinton and his top aides cite China's integral role in the the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, particularly in helping to set the stage for the current face-off between India and Pakistan.
In years past, China supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology and components for missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads. This posed a threat to India, a longtime adversary of Pakistan that also has a tense relationship with China.
But that also puts China in a key spot to help relieve those tensions.
"Because of its history with both countries, China must be a part of any ultimate resolution of this matter," Clinton said.
China chaired meeting
In fact, China recently chaired a Geneva meeting of foreign ministers from the world's declared nuclear powers that marked a first step toward a possible solution of the South Asian nuclear stand-off.
An ally of North Korea, China also played a positive behind-the-scenes role in getting Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear program in late 1994. As North Korea's economy deteriorates to the point of disintegration, China remains well positioned to help determine whether the heavily armed Korean Peninsula will unify peacefully.
Clinton's ability to sell China as a possible peacemaker is undercut, though, by charges that he has winked in the past at Beijing's practice of fostering nuclear proliferation.
Like his predecessors, George Bush and Ronald Reagan, Clinton approved the transfer of satellite technology to China despite the similarity between satellite launchers and missiles.
He has argued that his decisions were routine, but they are controversial because one of the firms that benefited is headed by a major Democratic contributor.
What's more, Clinton approved the technology transfer despite indications that China was supplying M11 missile components to its ally, Pakistan.
Since then, however, China has pledged to stop supplying any dangerous nuclear technology to Pakistan and has cut off even civil nuclear cooperation with Iran.
China has also pledged to abide by the terms of an international agreement intended to halt missile proliferation, though it still refuses to sign the accord.
An 'evolving process'
"China is getting closer to adhering to the norms of nonproliferation, but it's an evolving process," says Howard Diamond, a senior researcher at the independent Arms Control Association.
Clinton has acknowledged that China's cooperation in curbing weapons of mass destruction is not assured.
"As a nuclear power with increasingly sophisticated industrial and technological capabilities, China can choose either to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution," Clinton said in his recent speech.
The president promised that on his trip to Beijing, "I will seek stronger controls on the sale of missiles, missile technology, dual-use products, and chemical and biological weapons."
There are additional powerful reasons to keep talking with China, including the chance to influence Beijing's conduct concerning the international financial system, the environment and Pacific security.
In the Asian financial crisis, U.S. officials are encouraging China to continue to resist the temptation to devalue its currency, a move that could trigger a new round of currency devaluations throughout the region and further alarm the world's investors.
Clinton also hopes to persuade the Chinese to move more quickly to protect the environment from the ravages of the country's still-rapid industrialization.
"Every substantial body of water in China is polluted," Clinton noted. "Respiratory illness is the No. 1 health problem for China's people, because of air pollution." The World Bank, of which the United States is a key member, has a major program under way to help China improve its air and water quality.
Human rights violations in China are a major concern, but Clinton argues that he can make far more progress in talking to the Chinese about these concerns than if he followed the advice of those who would cut off U.S-Chinese relations in protest.
One positive note is that Beijing has calmed the world's anxiety over Hong Kong, which Britain formally returned to Chinese control last July.
China's Communist leaders have preserved a comparatively open political system in Hong Kong and granted broad autonomy to the territory's free-wheeling economic and financial sectors.
Anson Chan, Hong Kong's top civil servant, said on a recent visit to Washington that the Chinese army is rarely in evidence in Hong Kong and that its residents seem to feel growing confidence in China's leaders.
The opposite is the case on the Chinese mainland, where the government keeps up what a senior U.S. official calls "continual, overall climate of political and religious repression."
Growing numbers of young Americans are beginning to focus, for example, on China's suppression of political and religious freedom in Tibet. More than 140,000 attended a two-day protest concert reminiscent of the 1960s in Washington earlier this month where rock musicians and movie stars lent their support to the cause of Tibetan freedom.
Clinton's determination to go to China in the face of so much domestic criticism is seen as a major overture the administration hopes will be rewarded with human rights reforms. But the president will not shrink from criticizing his hosts.
Officials say Clinton will use a speech at Beijing University to launch a direct assault on China's human rights record, following what a growing number of China experts see as the most appropriate policy for the moment: hard-edged dialogue.
"I believe engagement does not mean rolling over for the Chinese, and therefore we should be firm on the issues of importance," said Winston Lord, a former assistant secretary of state.
China is expected to tolerate criticism from the U.S. leader because just having him visit is reward enough for a nation whose policies Clinton attacked bitterly during his initial campaign for the presidency.
As Douglas Paal of the Asian-Pacific Policy Center expressed the Chinese view: The last world holdout has now changed its tune, "and a leader who once was so often confrontational toward the Chinese is now coming to Tiananmen Square on bended knee."
Pub Date: 6/21/98