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Powell, in China, Sets Stage for Talks

Diplomacy: Secretary of State and Beijing leaders play down their differences, but analysts say the gap between the two nations is still wide.

July 29, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — In a signal that U.S.-China relations are back on track, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held a whirlwind series of meetings Saturday with the top leadership here and established the framework for movement on the thorniest differences between the two countries, from arms proliferation and human rights to U.S. aerial surveillance.

On a key strategic issue, the discussions "moved the ball forward" on Beijing's sale of missiles and weapons technology to countries such as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan in violation of an agreement last year, Powell said after talks with President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and others. He provided no specifics, but Chinese officials indicated that they are now trying to comply with their obligations.

China, in turn, toned down the volume of its objections to controversial U.S. plans to build and deploy a missile defense shield. If the U.S. is willing to pledge ongoing consultations, China is willing to listen, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said late Saturday.

The official language on both sides was generally warm and fuzzy, in striking contrast to tensions over the last six months, especially since President Bush declared China a strategic competitor and pledged to do "whatever it takes" to defend the rival government on Taiwan.

"We have come to quite a few agreements on how we can move forward with our dialogue on a full range of issues. . . . My presence here today is an example of trying to let the world see that we are not enemies and we are not looking for an enemy. We are looking for ways to cooperate," Powell told a news conference.

"Just because we have a disagreement in one area doesn't mean we have to ignore all the other positive areas in which we can move forward," he added.

At a separate briefing, Sun called Powell's talks and Bush's scheduled state visit in October "a historic opportunity for sustained and healthy development of relations in a new century."

Jiang even teased Powell before their talks, held in the ornate Great Hall of the People, for staying too briefly in Beijing, and he praised the secretary personally.

"Your reputation goes before you," the president said during a photo opportunity. Powell's best-selling autobiography has been translated into Chinese and has been widely read among intellectuals here.

Powell responded that the one-day visit was indeed little more than a "drop-by" and went on to praise China for the "remarkable" changes since he was last here 16 years ago, when he worked in Ronald Reagan's White House.

Despite this diplomatic embrace, however, Chinese and U.S. analysts are already warning that the gap on policies between the Bush administration and Beijing's leadership is still so wide that tangible progress in the near term is likely to be limited and that sparks will almost certainly continue to fly sporadically.

Improving the atmosphere doesn't automatically translate into meaningful policy changes, according to Wang Jisi, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And because Sino-U.S. relations are at a crucial stage, the Bush administration must do more to "sustain the momentum," the China Daily editorialized Saturday.

"There are underlying fundamental differences between the U.S. and China over missile defense, Taiwan, America's perceived unilateralism and its decision on strategic affairs to emphasize Japan over China that will be difficult to bridge," said David Zweig, professor of Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The two countries will try to deal with those differences at a series of meetings beginning next month covering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, joint economic and commercial issues, and the once obscure Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, Powell announced.

The latter pact is gaining attention because of the April showdown between Washington and Beijing after a midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet forced a U.S. EP-3 spy plane to land on China's Hainan island. The U.S. crew was held for 11 days, and the badly damaged American plane left the island in pieces only this month. The pact is now expected to become the vehicle for dealing with China's objections to U.S. surveillance and Washington's insistence that it will continue the EP-3 flights--another example of the wide gap in policies and practices between the two countries.

Powell left behind his top aide on human rights to hold talks with his Chinese counterparts. With last week's release from detention of three scholars with U.S. ties, Beijing has made "some progress" in this area, Powell said. But no other specific cases were raised in a day full of meetings, he said.

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