Bush faces key decisions on China

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

WASHINGTON -- No matter what they say on the campaign trail or at the beginning of their terms, all U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have ended up with essentially the same China policy. At least on the surface.

They have protested China's human rights and weapons proliferation policies to varying degrees. In the end, however, they have agreed that China is too big to ignore -- and have engaged Beijing in dialogue and commerce.

President Bush has to make some decisions soon on how to deal with the world's most populous nation and one of its fastest-growing economies.

One decision being watched intently by Beijing involves weapons sales to Taiwan.

China opposes all sales, a point likely to be reinforced this week during Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen's visit to Washington. He meets with Bush on Thursday.

Bush, who spent some time in China as a youth when his father was U.S. envoy in Beijing, plans to go to China in October.

During the campaign, Bush took a tougher line toward China than then-President Clinton. And senior administration officials have hinted recently that he is supportive of giving Taiwan a hefty weapons package.

But China watchers do not expect any basic shifts from previous administrations. ''I think a pattern of increasing openness, increasing engagement, has been the norm,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The Bush administration signaled it would follow the Clinton administration's lead and back a resolution condemning China when the U.N. Human Rights Commission meets next week in Switzerland.

One battle his predecessors fought that Bush gets to sidestep is renewing China's eligibility for preferential trade treatment.

Divisive annual congressional battles over China's trade status were ended by last year's vote to give China permanent normal trade relations as part of its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

But many congressional hard-liners, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., still want the administration to be tougher on Beijing and to strengthen military ties with Taiwan.

Already, there are clear strains in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. They include China's opposition to Bush's plan to move ahead on a national missile defense and U.S. assertions that China gave Iraq the technology to more accurately fire missiles at U.S. and British warplanes.

China recently announced its largest increase in military spending in 12 years, a rise of $17 billion, or 18 percent, and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan urged the United States to ''rein in its wild horse'' behavior on Taiwan.

''It strikes me that we're potentially in an action-reaction cycle, where in China there's a huge misunderstanding of American foreign policy,'' said Rep. James Leach, R-Iowa, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.

The Taiwan-arms issue will come to a head in April when U.S. and Taiwanese officials meet over additional weapons sales.

Topping Taiwan's wish list are four of the Navy's most advanced warships, $1 billion destroyers equipped with high-tech Aegis radar. Taiwan also wants four Kidd-class destroyers, P-3 submarine-hunting aircraft and high-speed anti-radiation missiles.

That goes far beyond what the Clinton administration was willing to sell Taiwan.

Since 1972, the United States has recognized that there is only ''one China,'' but that any reunification be done peacefully and along terms agreeable to both governments. China views Taiwan as a renegade province. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to Taiwan's defense.

Although all U.S. presidents have engaged China since Nixon reopened relations in 1972, a change of emphasis occurred with the end of the Cold War and China's crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators.

Since then, presidents have been more openly critical.

Former President Bush maintained relations with China despite Tiananmen Square, but also imposed sanctions on China and sold advanced fighter jets to Taiwan.

Even as Clinton pursued a relationship with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he warned that his communist regime was ''on the wrong side of history.'' The accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 further frayed ties.

''We have tried to communicate to the Chinese that we don't view them as an enemy; we don't wish to make them an enemy. But at the same time, we have to be realistic about the relationship,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said. ''They're not a strategic partner. They are a trading partner.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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