Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 4

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Forget about the “constructive strategic partnership.” Beijing has officially dropped the goal for Sino-American ties President Jiang Zemin and former President Bill Clinton reached in 1998. Now, on the eve of the Beijing tour of President George W. Bush, the Chinese leadership says it is gunning for a “constructive, cooperative relationship.”


As Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said in a media interview last week, this meant that both sides should “diligently maintain and expand areas of cooperation” while setting aside, or at least playing down, their differences. “The common ground and mutual interests [between both countries],” Tang added, “far outweigh the divergences and differences.” He also said that Beijing hoped there would be some enunciation on where both sides would strengthen their cooperation during Bush’s much-awaited visit. Officials in both Beijing and Washington have ruled out a major joint statement on the scale of the three Sino-American joint communiques, the first one of which was signed in 1972. The Jiang leadership hopes, however, that there will be a substantial commitment toward amelioration of ties–and that Bush would formally renounce his earlier characterization of bilateral relations as a struggle between “strategic competitors.”

Diplomatic analysts say while “constructive, cooperative relationship” seems quite a few rungs below “constructive strategic partnership,” Beijing is convinced that it is a more realistic proposition for both sides. They say that the Jiang team hopes there will be solid progress–or at least a pledge on closer and more regular consultation–on issues including fighting terrorism, arms proliferation, Asia-Pacific regional security, economic and trade relations, human rights and of course Taiwan.

The Chinese approach to these issues, some of which remain contentious, can be gleaned from the instructions on relations with the United States that Jiang laid down during a recent session on diplomatic strategy he conducted with his aides. These pronouncements contained both soft and steely elements. “If necessary, we can make concessions [to America] for twenty more years,” said Jiang, who is the head of the Communist Party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs. The president was referring to the need to follow late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s instructions that good ties with America were essential to China’s economic development in the first couple of decades of the new century.

While the Bush trip will last no more than 48 hours, it is billed as one of China’s most important foreign policy initiatives of the year. According to sources familiar with Jiang’s session with his aides, the president also made it clear that they must secure ways to counter American “hegemonism” and unilateralism. “We must find tupokou [breakthrough points] to check American preponderance,” the president reportedly said.


The latest sign that Beijing is willing to bend over backwards to roll out the red carpet for Bush was the release on February 6 of Hong Kong resident Li Guangqiang, who was arrested last year for smuggling bibles into coastal Fujian Province. Given a jail term of two years last month for “illegal commercial activities,” Li was granted so-called medical bail and was allowed to leave the country. Beijing’s apparent magnanimity on the Li case contrasts with the fact that throughout the country, police officers and agents from the para-military People’s Armed Police have continued their draconian crackdown on dissidents as well as members of underground churches. The flip side of the president’s “smile diplomacy” was reflected in special instructions that Jiang, also chairman of the Central Military Commission, had given the army to undermine the alleged American goal of world domination.

While Beijing’s reactions to Washington’s deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system are generally low-key, Jiang has asked his generals to look for chinks in the American armor. How to thwart the NMD is the latest addition to the many priority tasks slapped on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the period covered by the 10th Five Year Plan (2001 to 2005). It is believed that, building on military technology developed by Moscow, the PLA is working on new models of multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), or missiles with multiple warheads.


The yin and yang of conciliation coupled with confrontation are expected to inform the discussion Jiang will hold with his VIP guest. Beijing insiders say that, apart from trying to come to an understanding with Bush on common goals for the 21st century, the Chinese leadership will focus on three areas: the history of bilateral ties, relations across the Taiwan Strait and fighting terrorism.

First, Jiang will play what Chinese academics call the “history card” for whatever it is worth. Bush’s visit coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to Beijing. The Chinese will try to impress upon their guests that the trend of history has ordained that both countries should aim for a cooperative relationship–if not yet a partnership–instead of staying “strategic competitors.” As Vice Premier Qian Qichen wrote in an article last week on three decades of Sino-U.S. relations: “Both sides should concentrate on the big picture–and take the long view.”

Second, on the question of cross-Taiwan Straits relations, Jiang will mix a spirit of compromise with one of toughness. The Chinese team will remind Bush of the series of olive branches that Beijing has extended Taiwan the past year, including Qian’s statement last month that certain categories of members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were welcome to visit the mainland. Beijing will emphasize that with the mainland gravitating toward a moderate policy, it will be misguided for Washington to back DPP hardliners by continuing to sell sophisticated weapons to the island. It is unlikely, however, that Bush will veer from his administration’s insistence that Taiwan be supplied with enough military hardware to help it ward off a possible invasion from the mainland.

The last item on the Chinese agenda, which is an area on which Bush will put the most emphasis, is fighting terrorism. And it is possible that both sides can come to a limited meeting of the minds on this matter. Beijing will reiterate that while it supports the global antiterrorist campaign, actions against terrorists must have “clear-cut targets”–and preferably conducted under United Nations auspices. The Chinese leadership will continue to oppose possible American air strikes against Iraq. Jiang will also point out there should be “no double standards” on this issue, meaning the West should not frown on Beijing’s own war against “East Turkestan terrorists” in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Jiang leadership is said to be reasonably satisfied that in return for Chinese acquiescence in America’s exploits in Central Asia, the Bush administration has obliged Beijing to some extent on the Xinjiang front. While the White House raised a hue and cry over “bible smuggler” Li, it has largely kept mum over the much more serious case of the detention of more than 2,000 Uighur separatists and “religious extremists” in western and southern Xinjiang since late September.

The Bush team, however, will try to get a stronger commitment from the Chinese that they will stick to at least a policy of acquiescence should Washington widen the scope of its war on terrorism.

At least for Jiang, the tete-a-tete with Bush will be his last Sino-American presidential summit on Chinese soil. The Chinese president is happy that Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who was in Washington last week, had in principle arranged for an American tour for Jiang late this year. A source close to the Jiang office say that the president, who is retiring in the coming year, hopes to set up a protocol for diplomatic activities by China’s party elders. “Jiang wants to establish a good rapport with the Bush family–so that even after stepping down, he can still visit the United States as a senior statesman,” the source said.

Bush is in a position to make Jiang’s day if he were to accede to his host’s wish to pay a full-fledged state visit to Washington in September or October–one with the requisite pomp and circumstance that befit the swan song of the leader of the world’s most populous country. But that, of course, depends on the kind of “constructive cooperation” that both presidents can wangle out of each other in a mini-summit that will probably not last for more than two hours.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.