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Jiang's Visit With Bush Likely to Be More Show Than Summit

The Chinese leader's meeting at the U.S. president's ranch may polish his image, but no breakthroughs are expected to come of it.

October 23, 2002|Henry Chu and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING--This time, it's personal.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrived Tuesday in the U.S. for a three-day trip that will include a brief meeting Friday with President Bush at his Texas ranch. The two men are expected to cram discussion of Iraq, North Korea, weapons sales, Taiwan and perhaps a few other issues into one hourlong tete-a-tete and a working lunch.

But in spite of sunny official statements about the significance of the visit for Sino-U.S. ties, observers on both sides of the Pacific expect no breakthroughs to emerge from the summit.

Many analysts believe that the trip is more of a sentimental valedictory tour for Jiang, a final chance for the Chinese leader to burnish his credentials as a world statesman before his expected retirement next month as chief of China's Communist Party.

Tramping around the First Ranch and acting chummy with the U.S. president would allow Jiang to bask in Bush's reflected glory.

"I regard this visit as very much a personal one. It's not a state visit," said Chu Shulong, an expert on international relations at Qinghua University in Beijing. "Jiang Zemin likes to go to the U.S."

Officials at China's Foreign Ministry acknowledged last week that no joint statement or communique is likely to come out of the summit -- the third meeting between the two leaders in about a year.

But, a senior Chinese diplomat told reporters, Jiang's American tour, featuring stops in Chicago and Houston, marks "a very important event" that will help the two countries further "develop a constructive and cooperative relationship."

Sino-U.S. ties have sailed along on a fairly even keel during the last 12 months, after weathering a major contretemps in April 2001, when an American spy plane crash-landed in southern China.

At the time, the knotty relationship between the world's most populous nation and its most powerful one loomed large on the diplomatic stage. But attention has since been diverted by the American-led campaign against terrorism.

Elbowed out of the spotlight, relations between Washington and Beijing have improved marginally and there have been no new crises.

In August, Beijing bowed to longtime American demands that it publish a list of missile-related items banned from export. Days later, the White House officially labeled as "terrorist" an obscure Islamic group that Beijing accuses of fomenting separatism in western China.

The two countries have engaged in some modest intelligence-sharing following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On Tuesday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft came to the Chinese capital to open an FBI attache office.

And last week, two high-ranking U.S. diplomats were in Beijing to discuss the surprise admission by North Korea, one of China's allies, that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In Texas, Bush is likely to urge Jiang to bring Chinese pressure to bear on Pyongyang to desist.

Both Chinese and U.S. officials also report a more cordial, if not ideal, atmosphere over issues of human rights and military exchanges. The two sides could barely stand to talk to one another following last year's spy-plane crisis, but once again phone calls are getting answered and conversations are being held, rather than lectures delivered.

Beijing says that a human rights dialogue will probably take place before year's end. And Bush has ordered a resumption of military contacts, such as the visit to China this month by Vice Adm. Paul G. Gaffney, president of the National Defense University in Virginia.

"There's enough mutual trust and confidence that we can disagree without being disagreeable," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said on a visit here two months ago.

The relative calm in the relationship suits both nations for now, experts say, because both are facing a more pressing concern: regime change.

For the U.S., that means Iraq. The Bush administration is busy trying to drum up support for its tough line against Saddam Hussein and is mindful that China wields veto power at the United Nations as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Although China would probably not approve any resolution authorizing military force against Baghdad, the White House hopes that Beijing will abstain from voting and generally keep quiet.

"Basically, the Bush administration just wants the Chinese to stay out of the way," a former U.S. diplomat said.

Beijing may use its leverage to demand that the U.S. lift sanctions slapped on Chinese companies suspected of exporting sensitive military equipment. It also wants Washington to end a ban on letting American companies launch satellites aboard Chinese rockets.

But officials here deny that Jiang will demand any quid pro quo over Iraq while in Texas.

"It's not deal-making," He Yafei, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing last week.

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