An apparent easing of tensions between the United States and China is being quietly reflected by a sudden shift in the attitude of Chinese officials who recently have met with their American counterparts, U.S. officials say.
Since the May 7 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's U.S.-led air war against Yugoslavia, the United States has been the subject of one of the most withering attacks in China's state-run press since relations between Washington and Beijing were normalized in 1979. As recently as a few weeks ago, Chinese officials in meetings with American diplomats charged that the embassy bombing was a deliberate act of international terrorism designed to destabilize China--a widely held belief here.
But during a meeting last week with Morton Halperin, head of the State Department's policy planning section, the Chinese did not charge the United States with deliberately bombing the embassy, U.S. officials said. In addition, they said China apparently has dropped its demand that the United States punish those responsible for the attack, which U.S. officials have insisted was caused by reliance on a faulty map of Belgrade.
Halperin's visit also marked an end to China's refusal to discuss the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, another consequence of the embassy bombing. Halperin conducted a two-hour meeting with the Chinese about nonproliferation issues, although it was couched as a discussion about policy planning. Human rights dialogue and military-to-military ties, also suspended in May, have yet to be resumed.
After months of tensions, the United States and China appear ready to mark an improvement in their troubled ties with the first meeting between President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, since a summit in Beijing last year. Clinton and Jiang are to meet for 60 to 90 minutes on Sept. 11 in Auckland, New Zealand, before the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
While the Chinese have shut off their anti-American propaganda campaign, American officials, for their part, have begun to rewrite the history of the recent spate of anti-American demonstrations in China. In a meeting with members of the consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu before leaving China in July, U.S. Ambassador Jim Sasser said that "several hundred" Chinese protested at U.S. consular facilities there after the Belgrade bombing and that they were not officially sanctioned by the government.
In reality, more than 170,000 people massed in front of the consulate for several days following the bombing and rooms in the consulate were torched by molotov cocktails thrown by the crowd, which government officials encouraged as a means of venting their anger against the U.S. mission.
"Both sides are engaged in a little historical rewrite," said one Western diplomat. "Everybody is making nicey nicey."
U.S. officials hope the New Zealand meeting between Clinton and Jiang will culminate months of difficult work by diplomats on both sides to fix ties frayed by NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy, the war in Kosovo, U.S. allegations of Chinese spying at nuclear weapons laboratories and China's opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
At the top of the list of substantive issues, U.S. officials hope to see new progress in negotiations on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. In a statement Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing is eager to join the world trade body--an apparent sign that after months of debate here a decision has been made to seek an early WTO accession.
"Endeavoring to join the WTO is the need of China's own reform and opening up," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said. "The Chinese side hopes the U.S. side could take concrete action to allow talks to resume."
China also has apparently modified its position toward North Korea. South Korean sources report that China agreed to a Japanese request to convey a message to the isolated government in Pyongyang not to carry out a second long-range missile test. North Korea tested a three-stage rocket in August of last year, sending shock waves through northeast Asia and contributing to Japan's decision to strengthen its security relationship with the United States.
During an unprecedented meeting last month between Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian and his South Korean counterpart, Cho Seong Tae, Chi expressed support for Seoul's attempt to improve ties with North Korea, the so-called Sunshine Policy, and accepted an invitation to visit Seoul. Since establishing ties with South Korea seven years ago, China had steered clear of South Korea's military to avoid angering its North Korean ally.
A South Korean official put the odds of another North Korean rocket launch at 50-50 and added that his government was "generally satisfied with China's attitude on the matter."
U.S. officials were vague when asked why they thought China decided to foster better ties with the United States. One senior American diplomat said that China "realized that it did not need a confrontation with the world's greatest power right now. No one else is going to buy their products like we do, and they understood that no one would back them up in a war with the United States."
Western diplomats, however, pointed to some specific moves by the United States that have helped appease China. The United States recently deposited $4.5 million in a Chinese bank account as part of compensation to the families of three Chinese killed during the NATO bombing. It also has apologized in a variety of ways to the Chinese government and presented China with the results of an investigation into the tragedy.
Even more important has been Washington's attitude toward Taiwan.
On July 9, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui said Taiwan and China should establish "special state-to-state" relations, prompting a furious response from Beijing. Beijing views Taiwan, an island of 21 million people 100 miles off the coast of the Chinese mainland, as a renegade province that is an inalienable part of China. Lee's new formulation showed that Taiwan increasingly is viewing itself as a separate country.
The United States reaffirmed its support for the "one China" policy--a thinly veiled slap at Taiwan. It also, sources said, stopped a senior Taiwanese official, Su Chi, from traveling to the United States to explain Taiwan's new policy.
To be sure, U.S. ties with China remain fragile. China's state-run press has recently reiterated the possibility of military action against Taiwan. If any attacks occurred, Washington's relations with Beijing would again go into a tailspin. Failure in the WTO negotiations and a North Korean missile test also could prompt a new rash of recrimination and threaten improving ties.