WASHINGTON — With Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington, the Clinton administration has forged considerably closer working ties with China than the two countries have had since the 1989 crackdown against protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
As part of this new relationship, U.S. and Chinese officials have agreed not to let their continuing differences over human rights stand in the way of strategic or economic ties between the two countries.
To be sure, Jiang's day in Washington on Wednesday brought protests in the streets and a lively debate over human rights between Jiang and President Clinton at their joint news conference. The agreements announced between the two countries were neither surprising nor particularly far-reaching.
Nevertheless, the central fact is that the United States is dealing with China in a palpably different fashion. The Clinton administration has shifted from a human rights policy that insisted on specific results--such as prisoner releases--to one that is based on airing differences without dwelling too much on them.
"Human rights is very important," National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told reporters Wednesday.
But he hastily added: "Trying to prevent war in Korea is very important. Trying to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is very important."
His underlying message was clear: The United States needs help from China on strategic issues, such as dealing with North Korea and Iran. And the Clinton administration is not going to let arguments over human rights prevent it from trying to obtain this Chinese cooperation.
A statement issued by the two governments Wednesday said that Clinton and Jiang are determined to bring about what was called "a constructive, strategic partnership" between the U.S. and China.
This emerging Sino-American partnership is an important development for U.S. foreign policy, one that will affect the calculations of other governments in East Asia and elsewhere.
In simplest terms, it means that the United States and China are likely to cooperate with one another more than in the recent past.
Other nations are already keeping an eye on these changes.
For the last eight years, since the Tiananmen crackdown, other governments have taken it as a fact of life that the political and ideological differences between Washington and Beijing prevent them from working together too closely.
Now they are no longer so sure.
Administration officials acknowledged that there have already been signs that Japan, the United States' closest ally in Asia, has been uneasy about how far the new U.S. relationship with China will go.
Japanese concerns go back to 1971, when they were taken by surprise by President Nixon's opening to China, believing that they were not consulted and that the United States was forging closer ties with Beijing than with Tokyo.
For its part, China probably also will have to answer questions from some of its friends about what it is doing with the United States.
Take, for example, Iran. The government in Tehran is not likely to be too pleased about China's seeming willingness to restrict its help for Iranian nuclear projects.
Iran may fear that China is selling out a friend for the sake of relations with the United States--much as North Vietnam grew suspicious of China after Nixon sent National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger to Beijing in 1971.
The talk Wednesday of strategic partnership contained occasional, faint echoes of the old relationship that the United States and China formed during the waning years of the Cold War--when, from the Nixon era through the 1980s, Washington and Beijing often cooperated with one another against the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, Jiang and Clinton tried at the joint news conference Wednesday to characterize the emerging relationship as something new rather than as a return to the past.
Asked about the "triangular relationship" among the United States, China and Russia, Clinton replied: "During the Cold War, we were all three suspicious of each other, and we tried to play each other off against the other. So when Russia argued with China, we were very happy. Today, we must look to the future."
As for human rights, it is too soon to say whether Clinton's new approach--upgrading U.S. ties with Beijing without insisting on specific steps on human rights--will produce better results.
The administration clearly hopes that private appeals on human rights will succeed more than public demands in winning the freedom of political prisoners in China.
But so far, there is not much evidence to bear out this theory.
One former Soviet dissident, Yuri Orlov, who is now a researcher at Cornell University in New York, said this week that he believed that Clinton's unwillingness to insist on the release of Wei Jingsheng, China's leading dissident, before Wednesday's meeting was a "shame, shame, shame."