Is This Cold War II?

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ANTHONY SPAETH Zhu Rongji has devised an unusual itinerary for his high-profile, high-pressure visit to the United States this week. Starting in Los Angeles--and including a visit to Hollywood mecca Universal Studios--Zhu then goes to Washington for the usual red carpet and speeches, returns a few thousand kilometers to Denver, does an about-face to Chicago, and then zigs and zags to New York and Boston. The Chinese have been using maps since the 3rd century B.C. so it's unlikely Zhu has a faulty atlas. Perhaps he sees the utility of being a moving target. Sino-U.S. relations have become so stridently fractious that China's powerful Premier may not want to sit still in a shooting gallery crowded with would-be pot-shot artists: conservative lawmakers outraged over allegations of Chinese high-tech spying, liberals howling about human rights abuses, trade negotiators demanding more open Chinese markets, the pro-Taiwan lobby, supporters of Tibet.That troubled waters are swirling around the constructive strategic partnership between the U.S. and China--the highly elastic term that both sides use to describe the relationship--is undeniable. Two weeks ago, Washington sponsored a United Nations resolution condemning China's human rights record, infuriating Beijing. Representative Christopher Cox, chairman of a legislative committee investigating China's impact on U.S. national security, is sitting on a 700-page report that asserts a concerted effort by China to get U.S. missile, rocketry and nuclear secrets. (He's ready to make it public, though the White House may not be. Since they control the timing, Cox tells Time, I'd imagine it wouldn't be during [Zhu's] visit. White House officials counter that experts are going over the report line by line.) Tough negotiations are being held on China's application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and some in Washington are megaphoning the need for Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, to be included in any Star Wars-type defense shield that the U.S. designs in Asia. If that weren't enough, China has condemned the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. The politics of the bilateral relationship, says a senior Clinton Administration official, are clearly in a tough period.

Back in China, the flak emanating from inside the Beltway is inspiring return fire. Until late last week, there was a somber, down-to-the-wire debate in Beijing's highest circles over whether Zhu should call off the trip. Reflecting the concern, the China Daily warned last week: An outbreak of anti-China nonsense orchestrated by the U.S. media and politicians is still going on in Washington, which may put already strained Sino-U.S. ties in further danger. The rhetoric is heating up as well in Chinese think tanks that tend to be relatively forgiving toward America. In the United States, it has become the fashion to slander China, says Zhang Yebai, senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' American Studies Institute. The situation there is in some ways like China's Cultural Revolution. U.S. scholars who have a better understanding of China do not dare to speak up.

Is the constructive strategic partnership becoming destructive and dangerous? The stakes couldn't be higher. No geopolitical relationship is more important for the 21st century than that between today's sole superpower and the rapidly modernizing nation of 1.3 billion people. But when Zhu got an earful on human rights from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Beijing last month, his response was sharp. I told her: 'I'm 10 years older than you,' Zhu later related to the press. When I took part in the movement for democracy, freedom and human rights against the Kuomintang at the risk of my life, you were still in junior high school. Pulling rank, morally and chronologically, on Madeleine Albright: Is this a healthy relationship?

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But beneath the fiery rhetoric, there may be room for hope that the relationship won't spin out of control. Firstly, Zhu will receive the kind of high-profile welcome that was impolitic to give Chinese leaders in the years after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Only days before Zhu's departure, China announced the purchase of 10 Boeing commercial jets, valued at $400 million, and General Motors signed a deal to sell another $400 million of U.S. components to its joint venture in Shanghai. These represented the traditional peace offerings of dignitaries from countries that run large trade surpluses with the U.S.

Secondly, state visits like Zhu's don't merely survive the controversies of the day but often fan them, especially when U.S. elections are on the horizon. China assumes that the Clinton Administration is sliding into a tougher stance in advance of this year's primary election season, in order to protect presidential aspirant Al Gore from charges of being soft on China. A parallel process is taking place in Beijing: conservatives in the Communist Party and the military regularly grouse that Zhu and Chinese President Jiang Zemin yield too frequently to America's demands and don't stand firm against Washington's carping on such sensitive issues as human rights and Tibet. Because the U.S. is now such a swaggering superpower, asks a Chinese official, how close to America do we get?

And while Washington and Beijing seem to butt heads eternally on those hot-button issues, it's also true that major sore points between the countries flare and then recede. This year the most alarming controversy involves charges of Chinese espionage at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico and in other U.S. high-tech centers. Two years ago, when Jiang made his own high-profile visit to the U.S., he had to deflect charges that China was a military threat to the world at large: not long before, Beijing had fired missiles into the waters around Taiwan. But when U.S. President Bill Clinton went to China last June, that issue had dropped off the map, replaced by noisy outrage over China's alleged attempt to undermine American democracy through illegal campaign contributions. No one is saying that today's spying charges against China aren't serious--or denying that domestic U.S. politics often makes issues appear bigger than they really are. China is a symbol in U.S. domestic politics, says the Clinton Administration official, and in a tough period like this, the things China does that we do not like or agree with get a great deal of attention. Zhu himself has smoothly tried to place himself above the fray. Last month, when journalists asked if his visit would be affected by bilateral flash points, he said: I will go anyway to lend them a chance to let off their steam.

An entire boiler's worth of pressure is building up. Pro-Tibet demonstrators are planning to be on hand when Zhu visits the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York and a Motorola factory in Chicago. When Zhu arrives on Capitol Hill, he will face Senators Jesse Helms and Robert Torricelli, who have already introduced a bill to increase military cooperation with Taiwan. Other Congressmen are trying to wedge their way formally into the WTO controversy by demanding that congressional approval be required for China's admission to the body.

In Washington, many describe this gauntlet as fallout from Jiang and Clinton's previous summits. The accusation is that both of those meetings papered over divisive issues that were guaranteed to return to haunt both countries. The administration oversold the modest achievements of '98, which appear to be even more modest in 1999, says Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center, a non-profit institution that deals with defense-related trade issues. Kent Harrington, a former CIA analyst-turned-business consultant, says Clinton's claim that his China visit represented a true meeting of the minds rings hollow. Washington set itself up for a fall. The administration failed to build a bridge to policymakers, politicians and the community in Washington, or to build a realistic view that the relationship would be at times troubled. According to deputy assistant secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell: We need to lay out clearly what areas of policy we are having trouble with and what we have actually achieved. But we cannot oversell the situation.

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The human rights issue is a guaranteed nonstarter. Election-season politics will sharpen U.S. criticism during Zhu's visit, and both the State Department and activist groups accurately note that China is not even fulfilling its pledges in two human rights-related covenants it signed in the last two years. It's time to insist that the reality match the rhetoric, says Catharine Baber, China researcher for Amnesty International. Or is it? The situation in China is fragile. Zhu's economic reforms are causing massive unemployment in a country without any kind of social security. Besides, this year brings some emotive anniversaries: the 50th of the founding of the People's Republic, the 80th of the student-led May 4 movement and, on June 4, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Anniversaries often spur protests in China, and Beijing is sure to use all its tools of oppression to avoid that. To the Chinese, political matters are internal affairs, says Hong Kong-based democracy activist Mak Hoi Wah. They are not prepared to accept international intervention.

Another uncrackable nut is Washington's new interest in a Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system, a rehashed version of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars defense shield. Funding for research was approved only in March, but suggestions that Taiwan be included in the umbrella already have Beijing hopping mad. On TMD, China and America are head-to-head in fighting postures, says Byron Weng, chairman of the department of government at Hong Kong's Chinese University.

Business should be Zhu's metier, considering his previous job as China's economics czar and his current campaign to overhaul China's economy. But even prosaic trade issues get political between China and the U.S. The Cox committee has investigated, among other things, the possibility that Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space & Communications illegally transferred missile guidance technology to China in 1995. Cox's revelations could lead to further export restrictions on high-tech products to China, a possibility that worries the American business community. U.S. sales of satellites to China could rise to an estimated $171 billion by 2007, from $38 billion in 1997--but such growth won't occur under new export restrictions. Non-American firms could easily grab the business, warns the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, Richard Latham. Then you're locked out of that market for 10 to 15 years. As Commerce Secretary William Daley told an audience in Beijing last week: This is the worst climate for high-tech trade in 20 years.

Similarly, China's bid to join the WTO had been touted as the one concrete achievement Zhu could conceivably clinch during his visit. Daley and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky both flew to Beijing last week for 11th-hour negotiations. But to make the deal palatable for U.S. business, they had to prod China to relax restrictions on various imports--and also pry open Chinese markets to such services as insurance and telecommunications. For China, WTO membership would aid its export-driven economy and give Beijing a commanding role in a large international organization. The cost: opening up large industries to competition, probably leading to more layoffs. That price seemed excessive to Zhu last year, when similar negotiations were allowed to lapse.

Zhu Rongji might well feel like a general behind enemy lines when he hits the U.S. The two countries are destined to compete with each other, says Chinese University's Weng. You cannot think of one being subordinate to the other. The two are bound to try to cooperate but also fight. Perhaps it is fitting that one of Zhu's first stops is Universal Studios, with its roller coasters and a ride in which a giant shark threatens to chew you up. It's good preparation for the thrills awaiting him in Washington.

Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing, Maria Cheng and Isabella Ng/Hong Kong and Sally B. Donnelly and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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