Beijing released one of its highest-profile political prisoners Thursday, days before Rice's scheduled Sunday arrival. In an apparent return gesture, Washington agreed not to seek a United Nations censure of China's human rights record.
The released prisoner, Rebiya Kadeer from China's far western province of Xinjiang, was sentenced in March 2000 to eight years in prison for "illegally providing state intelligence abroad" after she sent newspaper clippings to her husband in the United States. On Thursday, she boarded a plane for the U.S., according to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation.
Although Rice's primary concern on her stop in Beijing is likely to be a discussion of how to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table, she also is expected to question China about its military buildup.
On March 4, China announced a $30-billion defense budget for the coming year, a 12.6% increase and the latest in a series of sizable hikes. The CIA recently said that Beijing's military expansion was tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and increasing the threat to U.S. forces in the region.
China would like to buy more weapons from Europe. And many European states would like to sell them. To do so, however, the European Union needs to drop its ban on weapons sales to Beijing, enacted after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Washington, however, opposes lifting the sanction.
China's aggressive spending has not only made Taipei nervous, it also has alarmed Japan.
"China might say it will rise peacefully," said Takashi Inoguchi, a professor at Tokyo University. "But how do we know? Japan has felt the need to assert itself more in response."
Japan's concerns have been sharpened by Beijing's apparent efforts to probe its defenses, including the incursion late last year of a nuclear submarine into Japanese waters.
Rice's first trip to Asia since becoming secretary of State is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs, and a big part of the meetings will be relationship building.
"The U.S. is trying with this trip to improve relations with Asian countries," said Zhu Xianlong, a foreign policy expert at Beijing Union University.
Analysts say they hope that Asia's interlocking web of tensions remains under control, and that Rice isn't called upon to rely on those relationships in a crisis.
"These tensions need to die down fast," Inoguchi said. "The governments all want to be closer and see smoother relations. Unfortunately things like nationalism can get out of control. It doesn't always work out that way."
Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.