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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

Books: Ricebowl Diplomacy
Behind the twists turns of America's relationship with China
By TODD CROWELL


Book Cover
About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, From Nixon to Clinton
By James Mann

The modern era of U.S. relations with China began on July 9, 1971, when Henry Kissinger, then National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon, secretly flew to Beijing. Within months, China took its seat at the United Nations, and in 1972 Nixon became the first American president to visit the mainland. Official recognition came in 1979 under his successor, Jimmy Carter.

The Nixon-Kissinger initiative set a pattern for dealing with Beijing that all other U.S. presidents up to Bill Clinton would follow - for better or worse. So writes James Mann in his excellent new survey, About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, From Nixon to Clinton (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, 433 pages, $30). Over the decades, this relationship was marked by three elements: secrecy, a propensity to deal only with the elite in China and an unwritten pledge not to directly challenge the authority of the Chinese Communist Party or to seriously question how it dealt with its people in order to stay in power.

Even Carter, who made human rights one of the themes of his single term in office, never pushed the issue with the communist leadership. He was much harder on the Soviet Union. For example, he sent personal letters of encouragement to dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov. One reason is that under Carter, China increasingly began to be seen in U.S. thinking as a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union. Thus began a peculiar alliance in which the U.S. shared with the People's Liberation Army secret satellite intelligence of Soviet military positions near China's borders and began programs to sell military equipment to upgrade the Chinese armed forces.

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These policies continued under President Ronald Reagan. The irony is that the conservative leader with strong ties with Taiwan presided over probably the longest period of smooth relations with China in modern times - what Mann calls the "golden years." Reagan's trip to China in 1984 ended any lingering doubts among Taiwan's leadership about the finality of U.S. recognition of the Beijing government.

The great watershed was, of course, the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and their bloody suppression on June 4, l989. Yet Reagan's successor, George Bush, tried to apply the old policy as if nothing had changed. Only weeks after the incident, he sent his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to not-so-secret talks with China's leaders.

Tiananmen upset the formula by dividing public opinion in the U.S. Before the crackdown, the American people and Congress had generally supported warming to China. Nixon had glowed in public approval of his trip to Beijing, which even now is considered his greatest accomplishment. Post-Tiananmen, China policy became a campaign issue for Democrats and Republicans, leading to the annual confrontations over renewal of China's Most-Favored Nation (MFN) trading status that began during the Bush years.

Clinton tried to cut through the debilitating yearly debate and finesse the growing anti-China bloc in Congress by linking MFN to some measurable progress on human rights in the mainland. But Mann, a diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, maintains that rapid growth of the Chinese economy after Deng Xiaoping's famous 1991 tour of southern China inadvertently sabotaged Clinton's linkage policy. The nations' growing business dealings made Washington nervous about the trade consequences. Also, there was no real sign that Clinton's policy was working. That set the stage for his embarrassing "about face" on human rights.

But the most serious recent confrontation stemmed from an unusual incident in 1994, when Lee Teng-hui was left to fume inside his plane during a refueling stop in Honolulu. The Taiwan president was on a visit to Central America, but Washington did not want him to set foot on U.S. soil as it might imply official recognition. Clinton felt a certain guilt stemming from that episode, which later persuaded him to issue - against State Department advice - a visa for Lee to visit the U.S as a private citizen. The decision caused a rift with Beijing that took years to mend.

America's connection with China is sometimes referred to as a "special relationship" - a term usually applied to countries such as Britain or Israel with which it has unique cultural or historical connections. In a real sense, the relationship with China is special. Both countries are continental-sized nations, both nuclear powers, both have key interests in Asia and an enormous trading account. Which is why China can never be treated as if it were, say, Paraguay or even Brazil.

At the same time, the two nations are profoundly different, not the least because China is still a communist country. They have widely different world views and often conflicting interests. That means that the relationship will always be testy and subject to huge mood swings, seen most recently in the wake of the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It will take, Mann writes, considerable attention, skill and goodwill to keep it on an even keel.

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