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A clearer US-China picture

Avoiding false sentimentalities and insecure pessimism

This year marks the 20th anniversary of normalized US-China relations, an event celebrated in both capitals with upbeat commemorative events, a warm look back at the high-profile Sino-US summits of the last year- and-a-half, and praise for the "constructive strategic partnership" acclaimed by US and Chinese officials.

But something is wrong with this picture. Scratch beneath the high gloss, and the relationship begins to lose its luster. What's more, the sheen of high politics obscures significant bilateral differences for the two countries in the coming year and masks deeper, unresolved problems.

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In economic relations, human rights, and regional security, impending difficulties in the coming months will challenge the commitment of the two sides to improved ties. Record trade deficits with China - by US accounts likely to reach nearly $60 billion for 1998 - and continued impediments to foreign investors have dampened go-go American business spirits. Without business backing, the relationship is certainly headed for bumpy times. In addition, World Trade Organization (WTO) accession for China will remain tentative and contentious. China appears unprepared to open markets and distribution networks, making membership unlikely until after the next major round of negotiations in 1999. During the coming months, pressures in Washington may mount to support WTO membership for Taiwan. China will oppose Taiwan preceding it into the WTO, prompting a possible standoff between Washington and Beijing.

With the detention, trial, and imprisonment of several leaders of nascent opposition parties in December, and a harsher-than-usual annual human rights report expected in March from the State Department, the two sides have already begun to face off over this contentious subject. Moreover, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crisis in June will spark renewed and vitriolic criticism in the US over Chinese human rights abuses. In turn, the Communist Party leadership will harden its position on political rights over the coming year, as it seeks a problem-free 50th anniversary founding day celebration for the People's Republic in October.

Along the security horizon, a number of problems will gain even greater prominence in 1999. As concerns build on the Korean peninsula in the coming months, so too will calls for China to take a tougher line with its comrades in the North, a position Beijing is unwilling to take. Among other contentious security issues for 1999 will be the US development of East Asian theater missile defenses, particularly US support for the deployment of these systems in Japan and Taiwan.

On the highly sensitive issue of Taiwan, the US and China can always expect problems. With the mainland reveling in national pride on the country's 50th anniversary just as Taiwan heats up for the March 2000 presidential election, Chinese military posturing can be expected, reminiscent of the Taiwan Straits exercises and missile tests of 1995 and 1996.

Squarely at the crossroads of economic and national security issues, the recent release of findings from the US Congress Cox Committee will foster a critical reevaluation of US high-tech trade with China. The Cox panel, which began with an investigation of the Loral/Hughes transfer of satellite launch technology to China, broadened its purview to scrutinize other sensitive dual-use trade and scientific exchanges with China. The classified report will certainly spotlight US security concerns with China, and urge stricter limits on this aspect of US-China ties.

But most important for 1999 and beyond, even if some of these differences can be tempered in the near term, the two sides will remain divided over more fundamental issues. Even on the basics of international discourse - globalization, good governance, sovereignty, use of force, the role of the United Nations - the two sides often have sharply differing views. Finding common ground on such elemental issues will take years of substantive interaction, and even then China and the US will have pointedly divergent views.

The two sides are thus challenged to work far harder at building confidence and realistic expectations into their relationship. This task will include greater candor, not only between themselves, but also with their domestic constituencies, about the differences which divide them.

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At the same time, Chinese and US leaders will need to do a better job of explaining the value of this relationship.

The leaders on both sides need to stabilize popular support for better US-China ties, and marginalize the extremes that exaggerate the inevitable ups and downs of the engagement process. By devoting renewed energies to expanding their areas of common ground and building realistic expectations at home, the two sides can avert the dangers of false sentimentalities on the one hand, and insecure pessimism on the other.

Bates Gill is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and director of the Brookings Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.

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