Wanna Dance?

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ANTHONY SPAETH When Madeleine Albright last came to Beijing eleven months back, the trip was a sparkler. Less than an hour after landing at Beijing Capital Airport, the U.S. Secretary of State was inking an agreement to set up a hotline between Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.Last week she returned for her fifth official visit, but sparkle had turned to frost. The government-run People's Daily ignored her arrival, and when it finally deigned to write about Albright, the piece was buried beneath a report on Jiang's meeting with Cuba's foreign minister. Her trip was intended to build momentum toward premier Zhu Rongji's planned visit to Washington in April, but her meetings with Zhu and then Jiang got sidetracked, as expected, by clashes on human rights. After Albright raised the ever-sensitive issue, the Chinese responded with their own report on the dire human rights situation in the U.S., which was portrayed as an abyss of racial discrimination, with a manipulated press, low voter turnouts for elections and rampant crime. (It included a not-often-publicized statistic on the high murder rate afflicting the U.S. catering industry.) Said Albright at the end of her notably flinty trip: Last June, our two Presidents agreed to a candid dialogue on human rights. In the last two days, we have seen what a candid dialogue looks like.

It didn't take a China watcher to parse that comment: the static on the line between Washington and Beijing is still pretty deafening. And while the relationship between the two giants is famously gyroscopic, there are actually some brand new points of conflict. Human rights rhetoric always grabs the headlines, which the Chinese seemed determined to provide this time around, detaining at least three dissidents in the week before Albright's arrival. But China also protested Washington's decision to finance research on a Theater Missile Defense system, the new avatar of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars defense shield--and to possibly include Taiwan within its protective bubble. As far as anyone knows, there's only one country that might wish to lob ballistic missiles at Taiwan, and that's China, which considers the island a renegade state, its property, and not a suitable tenant inside an high-tech American defense umbrella. (Taiwan recently complained of China's deployment of 100 new missiles pointing in its direction.) Not to mention other contentious chestnuts: will China open up its market to American businesses in order to get a seat in the World Trade Organization? Is it snapping up U.S. technology, against U.S. regulations, for its military, and selling missile technology to Iran and Pakistan? What is it doing to make the world safer from North Korea?

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Which could lead one to conclude that the hotline between Clinton and Jiang might as well be replaced with a permanent recorded announcement: Can't we get along? But sparks are only possible with friction, not a frozen stasis, and Albright's visit was less a mission of its own than a preliminary round. When Zhu flies to Washington next month, it will be the first U.S. visit by a Chinese premier in 15 years. And Zhu is a most powerful Number Two: the former economics czar is attempting a vast overhaul of the Chinese economy, which he defended again last week in a remarkably populist speech, broadcast live, before the National People's Congress in Beijing. Zhu wants some big achievements for his trip, most notably a breakthrough on the WTO fracas. Albright's arrival was, in effect, a chance for both sides to present their toughest opening arguments--now the real negotiating begins. In fact, Albright was barely in the air en route to followup stops in Southeast Asia when U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was landing in Beijing to discuss WTO issues. After her two days of talks, hopes were higher than ever that China might eventually get its seat. Barshefsky characterized the meetings as serious and good, while the Chinese said they were serious and pragmatic--a diplomatic lovefest compared to Albright's farewell.

China and the U.S are engaged in a painfully clumsy dance with a pair of discordant orchestras and plenty of jeering spectators, particularly on a Capitol Hill outraged by Chinese suppression of political parties and individual rights. The intriguing question is whether the two partners will manage to get a step or two right: to settle the WTO dispute, for example, which could give a boost to Asia's ailing regional economy, or to deepen cooperation on reining in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Former U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley says there are two parts to every high-level encounter between the two nations. One is the theatrics, the positioning, the hype, and that is all on human rights, he says. It gets all the headlines and nothing ever happens. But Lilley sees genuine progress on, at least, the North Korea issue. They're finally beginning to get that right, although it's going to take a lot of good, slogging work.

The Chinese had every reason to be defensive considering the heavy cargo of criticism Albright hauled to Beijing. The week before, the State Department released its yearly report on human rights, slapping China for a sharp deterioration in the past few months alone. The U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to urge the Clinton administration to condemn Beijing at the United Nations Human Rights Commission later this month. Washington had also just nixed a $450 million sale of a U.S. telecommunications satellite to China, pleading national security, and Senator Christopher Cox was putting the final touches on a report detailing China's alleged attempts to obtain U.S. high technology.

China decided the best defense was offense. The usual protests were issued about unwarranted charges, irresponsible comments and interference in its internal affairs--and then authorities promptly detained three members of the banned China Democracy Party just before Albright's arrival. (Suppression of that group, which calls itself an opposition party in a one-party state, was criticized in the State Department report.) In addition, He Xingtong, wife of jailed veteran dissident Xu Wenli, complained of heavy police surveillance throughout the secretary of state's visit in Beijing.

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In days past, when the U.S. linked trade concessions with human-rights issues, Beijing released dissidents to gain trade favors. The delinking in 1994 is defended strongly by Washington--and, as the dissidents' detentions this month prove, is something Beijing is counting on no matter how tough it decides to get with its own people. That such a tack will undoubtedly backfire on Capitol Hill doesn't seem to have sunk in. One of Albright's big discussion points in Beijing was China's perception that an anti-Beijing wing in Washington was causing all the trouble. Albright apparently spent a lot of time assuring Chinese officials that the human rights issue was neither partisan nor a conspiracy of anti-Chinese groups. It's far more serious than that, announced State Department spokesman James Rubin. There is bipartisan concern in the United States at a very, very high level on human rights. And according to Rubin, those discussions were not just full and frank, to use the customary jargon for a diplomatic catfight. Quoting diplomats who had been involved with China for a long time, he said: They thought it was on the high end of tough exchanges.

On the subject of the Theater Missile Defense system, which was revived in February by Clinton, Albright tried to assuage China by saying they shouldn't worry about a decision that has not been made to deploy defensive technologies that do not yet exist. That didn't go far in a country outraged by the mere proposal, now being explored by the U.S. and Taiwan, that Taiwan will be under the shield. Albright went on to say that the system was conceived merely to defend U.S. troops deployed abroad--of which Taiwan has none. She also said that if missiles from North Korea could be dismantled--one recently flew over Japan, frightening all of Asia--Star Wars II wouldn't be as viable a concept for the U.S. Whether China really wants to help the U.S. in disarming North Korea is unclear. A unified Korean peninsula would put U.S. military forces close to the Chinese border. But Beijing is no longer averse to a public perception that it is actually cooperating with Washington, in particular in urging Pyongyang back to four-party negotiations, with South Korea and the U.S. Washington seems to be using the specter of a Star Wars II program to pressure China to go further. The Chinese have more influence than most countries on North Korea, says spokesman Rubin. We think, for obvious substantive reasons, they have influence and should use that influence.

The biggest deliverable in advance of Zhu's Washington trip is progress on the WTO front. China has been pushing for its seat for a decade, largely to enjoy low tariffs on its exports to the West and to escape the yearly debate in Washington on what tariff rates it deserves. Those negotiations are top secret, and much will depend on each sides' desire for a solution. The biggest sticking point: will China open up its own markets to western goods, including agriculture products, and such services as insurance and legal work?

Beyond the WTO dispute, the rest of the issues between the two very different giants will remain complicated, contentious and long-term. In our relationship with China, Albright said last week, these are neither the best of times nor the worst of times. A judiciously bland summing up, perhaps, but an interesting construction nonetheless. The real message: expect that relationship to get a little bit better, and a little bit worse, perhaps ad infinitum.

Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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Concrete structures built atop a tropical reef look to Filipinos like forward bases for Chinese expansion

The world's most populous country is also one of its most polluted, but a few dedicated activists are fighting the tide of ecological destruction and apathy