Clinton and Jiang to Walk Tightrope

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WASHINGTON: Bill Clinton promised to "build bridge to the Twenty-First century," but he'll have to settle for a tightrope next week when he welcomes China’s Jiang Zemin for the most important Chinese state visit since Deng Xiaoping charmed Americans in 1979. "Clinton is dealing here with the biggest challenge facing the U.S. for the foreseeable future," says TIME State Department correspondent Dean Fischer. "It's a relationship that will develop well into the next century."

But not without a few rocky points. Concerns about China's human rights record and a growing trade imbalance make it unlikely that Zemin's visit will produce any major new initiatives. Instead, both sides are presenting this as an opportunity to establish normal relations.

While Clinton needs to be able to show a skeptical America that engagement with China is yielding results, Beijing isn't likely to give him much to work with, says Fischer. While Clinton would like to be able cite progress on human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, religious freedom and nuclear non-proliferation, "Jiang is not really in a position to comply with the American wish list without appearing, at home, to be caving in to Washington," says Fischer. "Besides an agreement on non-proliferation -- which is significant, of course -- I don't think Clinton is likely to get much."

For his part Jiang needs the visit to confirm him as a major player on the global stage and consolidate his power against Beijing hard-liners. While the nation’s leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are likely to accord Jiang the respect he needs, the Chinese leader's dealings with the press and hostile congressmen, a scheduled speech at Harvard, and the likelihood that he’ll be dogged by protests across the country, all create potential for damaging incidents beyond the control of the administration.

Still, if the primary objective is, as Fisher says, "regularizing the relationship," then in order to be deemed a resounding success, all the visit has to do is pass without calamity. Clinton and Jiang are on that tightrope together, and recognize the need to help each other along.

  • Read TIME magazine’s exclusive interview with Jiang Zemin