We Say/They Say

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U.S.-China relations were on the front burner in Washington two weeks ago when the House of Representatives gave its approval for Permanent Normal Trade Relations, so-called PNTR.

The Senate is expected to take up PNTR in the next few weeks, and once again the issues of China’s human rights policy, its tension-causing policy toward Taiwan and the possibility of American businesses getting a big piece of trade with China will all become hot topics on Capitol Hill.

So too will questions of how well each government understands the other and whether pressure from politicians in Washington is likely to be successful in changing policies made in Beijing.

"The question…is how to influence this change. We can't control it" says a senior State Department official with first hand knowledge of Asian affairs, "but we can influence it."

Just as U.S. officials do not like to be seen as being "soft" on China, the senior official says government officials in Beijing don’t want to be seen as being “soft” on the U.S.

The two political systems are quite different from each other and, according to Professor Bruce Dickson of George Washington University, "there's a real question of how well we really understand each other."

As an example, Dickson says only in the mid-1990s did the Chinese Embassy in Washington have someone assigned to the key role of congressional liaison officer—a person who allows at least senior Chinese policymakers to have a better understanding of the differences which often exist between the White House and Congress on any number of issues.

The senior State Department official says progress on human rights means certain things to Americans, but something more basic perhaps to the Chinese.

The official says the Chinese are pleased with a lot of the progress they’ve made in recent years. For example, the official says, "fifteen years ago China had 200 million people starving, and now they don't. They consider that progress."

Human rights activists in the U.S may want to see freedom of speech and a free press, but it's obvious Chinese political leaders, brought up within a communist system, are not ready for that much progress.

These differences in approach and understanding affect not only China-U.S. affairs, but relations between the communist giant and its neighbors as well.

Priorities for the U.S. in its dealings with China now center on the China-Taiwan relationship.

Taiwan's newly elected President, Chen Shui-bian, supports PNTR for China because he hopes Taiwan will be able to get the same economic status soon after China does.

But trade issues aside, China and Taiwan will continue to have major differences. The U.S., says the senior official, hopes to "find a constructive solution" by encouraging the so-called "cross-strait dialogue" between Taipei and Beijing.

One favorable development, says the senior official, ha been the withdrawal from consideration by the Senate of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, legislation that China strongly opposed.

If the Senate approves PNTR as expected, one aim of the Clinton administration in its last six months in office will be, according to the senior official, "not to set back our relationship" with China. Given the ups and downs that seem to characterize relations between the two countries, that may be a full time job.