Never mind the politics, it's time to do business

We may be seeing a new era in great power relations being ushered in

A VISITOR from outer space hovering over Beijing these past few days could have been excused for getting the wrong end of the stick.

Down below were two leaders who seemed to be disagreeing on central - and in some cases highly emotive - issues. Senior aides to the visiting President from America were openly criticising the host country's human rights record in strong terms, while the President of the People's Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, was insisting that the crushing of the pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was the essential prelude to the stability on which his country is now building.

Surely, the man from Mars would have concluded as he listened to the words wafting up from the Great Hall of the People and heard how the police were detaining dissidents who only wanted to talk to foreign reporters, the first visit to China by an American president this decade was turning into, at best, a stand-off - or, more likely, into a confrontation between the world's one superpower and the last major country ruled by a Communist party.

The delegation from the other side of the globe might list dozens of agreements, but none was big enough to signal any major progress or to obscure the depth of the differences between the two nations.

Behind the pomp and circumstance, there was nothing here for the history books, no Camp David or Northern Ireland peace accord. Even the announcement that China would no longer aim nuclear warheads at American cities was tempered by the knowledge that it takes only a matter of minutes to re- target a missile.

Why, then, the smiles and the laughter and the bonhomie between the two men on the platform? It wasn't even as if it was just another of the forced displays such occasions can produce. At one point, captured in a photograph made for eight column display across newspapers front pages, the Bill and Jiang show looked for all the world like a stand-up comedy duo, with the Arkansas good ole boy pointing across the platform as he made a joke, and his partner grinning back from stage left.

The decision to broadcast the exchanges between the two leaders live on Chinese television at the weekend was a striking sign of the times. Viewers throughout China could see the disagreements and the smiles - though relatively few American television viewers will have watched the proceedings, since the time difference meant transmission began at midnight East Coast time.

The following day, the two leaders were at it again - Jiang waving the conductor's baton at a ceremonial band and then handing it to Clinton, while Hillary giggled in the background - though Bill did resist the temptation to wade into the band, whip out his shades and play a few licks on a Chinese tenor sax.

It could not, of course, be all laughs and sweet mood music. Both from his own convictions and because of the domestic criticism of his visit to China, Bill Clinton had to speak out on certain issues. Equally, President Jiang had to stick to basic positions that define Beijing's view of China's sovereignty.

But neither man let that get in the way of the real business of this summit. For, however firmly held, their disagreements counted for little. Each side had determined in advance that the Clinton visit was going to work - just as will be the case with the follow-up visit to America by the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji.

Put at its simplest, the United States and China have decided that they have to build a relationship which can be a cornerstone of international relations for the 21st century. Each leader sees the other as a man he can do business with, that is, short of an unforeseeable event dramatic enough to upset the apple cart.

China needs the United States if it is to complete its engagement with the rest of the world. America, buffeted in its sole-superpower role by foreign uncertainties from Kosovo to the financial crisis in South East Asia, needs to cross the bridge to China to reassure itself that the home of Mao is anchored inside the tent of the international establishment, a brick in the wall that is all the more reliable for not having to worry about the vagaries of democracy.

Such perceptions of mutual need transcend the issues that have been the common currency of Sino-American relations since the Communists took power 50 years ago. The implications are considerable for many of the familiar issues and actors which hover just off centre stage. Take the three "t"s: trade, Taiwan, Tibet. All three are being submerged into the wider US- China sphere. That has repercussions for everybody from the Dalai Lama to European aircraft manufacturers.

Japan, too, will feel the effects, as it did in this month's currency turmoil in Asia when Beijing emerged as the solid player who knew how to play its cards in a way that would have done credit to George Soros - and who emerged with a cluster of credit points for refusing to consider devaluation.

The process which Clinton and Jiang have pushed forward has been helped along by the removal of several potential irritants. The leading dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan have been taken out of the US-China equation; others will follow. The first year of Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty will give both presidents cause for comfort when they visit the former British colony later in the week.

This, after all, is an era when senior officers from the army which crushed the Tiananmen demonstrators take courses at East Coast universities, and American multinationals advertise jobs on Chinese campuses. The overall environment is simply growing too strong for individual disagreements to have the effect they used to.

Just as Bill Clinton has taken American politics into a new age where traditional value judgments no longer count as long as the economy booms, so we may be seeing a new era in great power relations being ushered in between Clintonian Washington and a country whose internal system means that it can respond in kind. Will Tony Blair follow suit when he visits China later in the year? A new form of third way may be on the horizon, going beyond both the confrontation and agreement. Agree to disagree, and get on with business.

Whether we like it or not, that's the future as it looks from Beijing this week.

The writer is editor of the `South China Morning Post'.

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