Bush and Jiang: Agreeable Disagreements

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President George W. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin

Big-power summits are never easy, but they can be even more difficult for the players when they involve no substantial negotiations. That's because every word and gesture is carefully parsed for signs of conflict. So it may be a sign of the maturing of the U.S.-China relationship that Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin felt comfortable enough to politely disagree on a number of points in their Thursday press conference.

Jiang, for example, couldn't have been happy that Bush again showed a willingness to sell robust weapons systems to Taiwan. And Bush probably wasn't pleased when Jiang implied he would not support U.S. military action against Iraq. Still, the very fact that Bush was holding this joint press conference in China shows the relationship between the two men is more able than ever to accommodate differences.

Jiang has staked his legacy on China's relationship with the U.S. That hasn't always been easy; tensions over the Hainan spy-plane incident, allegations that China had stolen U.S. nuclear secrets and the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade all gave Beijing hard-liners plenty of ammunition. But Jiang has been able to smooth over the tensions and keep the lines of communication with the U.S. open.

Washington, for its part, has worked to move China policy beyond crisis-management. The most important step: Taking annual reviews of the relationship off the political calendar. Until the Clinton administration changed this a couple of years ago, there would be an escalation of tension when China's Most Favored Nation trade status came up for review and the U.S. threatened sanctions over human rights abuses or intellectual-property piracy or the sale of weapons. None of those concerns has gone away, and important differences remain. But they're now being pursued in a less confrontational way. And that's given both sides more flexibility. It's difficult to hold WTO negotiations, for example, in an atmosphere where sanctions are being threatened over human rights abuses.

The increasing stability in U.S.-China relations are part of China's arrival on the international stage. In the past year the country has joined the World Trade Organization, been tapped to host the 2008 Olympic Games and seen its soccer team qualify for the first time for the World Cup Finals. Those achievements are sources of immense pride in China, for which Jiang's government and the Communist Party is given credit. Beijing's growing international stature has also seen a maturing of its foreign policy, and its confidence in dealing with the West.