What China Wants from Bush Visit

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A visit by a U.S. president once had the power to change China. President Nixon's breakthrough meeting in Chairman Mao's quarters in 1972 signaled China's willingness to side with the U.S. against the Soviet Union; President Reagan's visit in 1984 helped consolidate China's economic reforms; and President Clinton's arrival in 1998—the first American presidential visit since the Tiananmen massacre—generated such hope for political reform that a group of dissidents responded by forming an opposition party.

President Bush's weekend in Beijing, by contrast, is more likely to show how stable China, and its relationship with the U.S., have become.

China's leaders see Bush's arrival as a chance to show their own people and the world that their country has taken its place among the responsible world powers. "The U.S. can sleep soundly and not worry that China will create problems," says Shen Dingli, an expert on international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, whose comments are typical of Chinese analysts. "In the future, China will be more democratic and will have a stronger legal system, but for now it is inward looking, trying to solve its own problems."

Beijing's desire to normalize relations with Washington saw it downplay Bush's provocative comments in Japan on Wednesday. Bush had proclaimed Taiwan "free and democratic and prosperous," and implied that the democratic political system in the territory that Beijing considers a renegade province would make a fine model for China. Such comments might once have set off a diplomatic firestorm, but this time, Beijing is unlikely to make them an issue. The U.S. presidentís remarks were not printed in Chinese newspapers, and a foreign ministry spokesman admonished that "all countries should communicate based on the principles of fairness and respect, and not interfere with each other's internal affairs." But China's leaders seem likely to let Bush's comments pass. "We'll pretend not to hear," says Shen. "We're mature enough not to oppose everything he says."

Beijing knows that its relationship with Washington has grown so intertwined that Bush can't risk allowing one issue, such as Taiwan or human rights, to determine their course. China's hosting of six-country talks to end North Korea's nuclear program have scored points in the White House, as have its promises to allow market forces to set its currency exchange rate in the future. Beijing's steady purchase of U.S. Treasury bills helps finance the Bush administrationís deficit spending, and shortly before Bush's arrival, China offered a major concession by limiting exports of textiles to America through 2008—China could have insisted, on the basis of trade rules that took effect last January, that Washington impose no restrictions on Chinese T-shirts, nylon stockings and underwear. Instead, the textile move helped lower tensions over China's trade surplus with the U.S., which is expected to reach a record $200 billion this year.

Despite the positive gestures, the two countries still regard each other warily. Years of double-digit growth in China's military spending could within a decade give it the means to project power in the region, and its hunger for natural resources worries American strategists. Says a U.S. official who deals with China, "We talk about China as a rival in our meetings, and that's how they talk about us in theirs."