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Potent partners, rocky relations


BEIJING - When President Bush took office, he inherited the most important bilateral relationship in the world: the complex and contentious ties between China and the United States.

Bush arrives in Beijing tomorrow for a two-day visit as relations between the two powers show signs of improvement after last year's standoff over a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.

Bush's trip comes 30 years to the day after President Richard M. Nixon's groundbreaking visit here to meet Mao Tse-tung in 1972. In the nearly two decades that followed, China and the United States established a stable relationship. That began to change in 1989, with the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising. And the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later removed the common enemy that brought the two countries together.

In the 1990s, China's rapid economic growth attracted world attention and emboldened its leaders to seek greater international status. The issue of the future of Taiwan, which Mao and Nixon had deferred, resurfaced as Taiwan emerged as a thriving democracy and its people increasingly lost interest in reunification with the authoritarian mainland.

Despite setbacks in recent years, Sino-U.S. relations have repeatedly rebounded because the two countries need each other. Beijing relies on U.S. investment to help drive its developing economy and American universities to train its best students. U.S. companies look to China as an enormous potential market while Washington seeks Beijing's cooperation to help maintain stability in Asia.

Here is a chronology of the challenging relationship between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one since the Communist Party came to power here 52 years ago.

Oct. 1, 1949: Mao stands on the rostrum of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and establishes the People's Republic of China. Defeated by the Communists, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops flee to Taiwan. Washington recognizes the Nationalists as the legitimate government of China.

June 25, 1950: With support from China and the Soviet Union, Communist North Korea invades South Korea. The United States and 15 other nations counterattack under the flag of the United Nations. To prevent North Korea's collapse, China enters the war and the armies battle to a stalemate along the 38th parallel. More than 33,000 U.S. servicemen and 400,000 Chinese die.

The Korean War ends, and China and the United States remain enemies for two decades. To check China's power, the United States stations more than 10,000 troops on Taiwan and secretly stores nuclear weapons there.

Feb. 21, 1972: Looking for help from China to end the Vietnam War and searching for a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, Nixon makes a dramatic trip to Beijing to meet Mao and move toward normalization of relations. The United States later signs the Shanghai Communique, pledging the eventual removal of troops from Taiwan and acknowledging that there is "one China and that Taiwan is a part of China."

Nixon's trip, replete with pictures of the president on the Great Wall, captures the imagination of the American public. Few realize that Mao's disastrous social experiment, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), is killing at least a million Chinese and crippling a generation.

Dec. 15, 1978: President Jimmy Carter announces that the United States will switch diplomatic recognition from the Nationalists on Taiwan to the Communists in Beijing. Notified hours before the announcement, Taiwan is furious. When then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, crowds pelt his car with tomatoes and rocks.

To ensure Taiwan's protection, Congress overwhelmingly passes the Taiwan Relations Act in early 1979. The act, which is deliberately ambiguous, states that any threat to Taiwan would be "of grave concern to the United States" and that the United States will maintain the ability to defend Taiwan.

Spring 1989: A million Chinese flood Tiananmen Square, demanding an end to corruption and a voice in how they are ruled. Chinese students build a replica of the Statue of Liberty in homage to American democratic ideals. On the night of June 3, tanks roll into Beijing and soldiers slaughter hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed protesters. The United States invokes sanctions.

1991: The Soviet Union collapses, removing the geostrategic bond that brought China and the United States together 19 years earlier.

Sept. 23, 1993: The affection of Chinese youth for all things American begins to change when Beijing loses its bid to play host to the 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney, Australia. Chinese blame Congress, which opposed the bid based on China's poor human rights record.

May 1995: Congress overwhelmingly supports granting a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui so he can attend a class reunion at Cornell University despite Beijing's protests. Congressional support for Taiwan grows as the island nears completion of its transition from dictatorship to democracy. Beijing continues to threaten to attack Taiwan if it declares independence.

March 8, 1996: Still infuriated with Lee, China carries out "missile tests" just off the coast before Taiwan's first-ever direct presidential election. Taiwanese jam flights to flee the island. President Bill Clinton sends two aircraft carriers to the region in the biggest military buildup around the Taiwan Strait since the 1950s. Beijing halts the launches after its fourth missile test. On March 23, the failure of China's gambit is complete: Lee wins by a landslide.

July 1, 1997: Amid much apprehension, China peacefully takes control of the vibrant, capitalistic colony of Hong Kong, which it ceded to the British in 1842 after China's defeat in the First Opium War.

June 1998: Clinton, who has called China a potential "strategic partner," visits Beijing for a summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. In an unprecedented nationwide broadcast, Clinton criticizes China for its crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrations, briefly raising hopes for greater political openness.

May 8, 1999: NATO planes bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Chinese engage in the biggest anti-Western protests here since the Cultural Revolution. The anger is genuine, but the government helps by providing transportation to the U.S. Embassy, where thousands pelt buildings with rocks and Molotov cocktails. China's state-run news media fails to report Clinton's apology promptly, encouraging the belief that the attack was deliberate. The demonstrations distract the public from the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen.

Dec. 19, 1999: China takes back the colony of Macau after more than four centuries under Portuguese control. Beijing now focuses its attention on recovering Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province and the final missing piece of territory that will help return China to greatness.

March 15, 2000: In advance of presidential elections in Taiwan, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warns Taiwanese that if they vote for Chen Shui-bian, the leader of Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), "you won't get another opportunity to regret."

March 19, 2000: Taiwanese voters again reject Beijing's strong-arm tactics. Chen wins the presidency, ending more than a half-century of Nationalist Party rule.

April 1, 2001: A U.S. spy plane collides with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea and makes an emergency landing on Hainan. Beijing blames the United States and holds the 24 crew members for 11 days before releasing them. Many Chinese interpret the 1999 embassy bombing and the mid-air collision as the United States' trying to contain China's rise as a superpower.

April 24, 2001: Bush, who calls China a "strategic competitor," vows to defend Taiwan in case of Chinese attack, appearing to drop a policy of "strategic ambiguity." A month later, Bush further angers Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

Sept. 11, 2001: Terrorist attacks on the United States provide Washington and Beijing with a new adversary: Islamic militancy.

Dec. 1, 2001: The DPP wins legislative elections in Taiwan, becoming the island's ruling party.

Jan. 24, 2002: Watching its influence on Taiwan continue to slip, Beijing issues an unprecedented invitation to the previously reviled DPP to visit the mainland.

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