Clinton's mission impossible in China

China visit: The leaders of two great powers meet with high expectation s but little chance of major agreements
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The Independent Online
WHITE HOUSE officials in Washington have presented President Bill Clinton's nine-day state visit to China as the most important foreign trip of his second term, perhaps of his presidency. They give the distinct impression, though, that deep-down, they wish it wasn't.

True, they have had less time to prepare than expected. Originally planned for the end of the year, the visit was brought forward at the urging of China. President Jiang Zemin made his state visit to Washington last November, and was reportedly keen that it should be reciprocated sooner rather than later - for reasons of "face".

Yet, no major agreements are on the cards. That perennial standby of content-free summits, establishing a "hot-line" for confidential calls in an emergency, was one of the few agreements at last year's Washington summit.

The follow-up may be a reciprocal agreement to de-target nuclear missiles from each other's cities - missiles which may not even be so targeted at present. That would be a mild crowd-pleaser in the United States, given the frisson caused by a "leaked" (and unconfirmed) CIA report about Chinese missiles last month, but not much to show for nine days in the Orient.

For Mr Clinton, and the vast team of Cabinet secretaries and senior aides accompanying him, the overriding consideration is to foster improving relations with China while avoiding political trouble at home. What is seen as the diplomatic entrapment of Vice-President Al Gore last year, when he participated in a televised champagne toast with China's then prime minister, Li Peng - otherwise known as the "butcher of Peking" - is engraved in the collective memory of Bill Clinton's White House, never to be repeated.

Pleasing China and the folks back home at the same time is not the easiest of tricks, however. Polls show that US public opinion has not forgotten or forgiven the events on Tiananmen Square nine years ago. Congress is overwhelmingly hostile to what the majority Republicans see as the Clinton administration's over-indulgence of Peking.

Nor can Mr Clinton count on support from Congressional Democrats. They remember his presidential campaign pitch in 1992, which included contempt for what he saw then as the Bush administration's pandering to an oppressive and corrupt regime in Peking.

Mr Clinton changed his mind about China policy very early in his presidency. Most recently, he told US China-watchers that the alternative to "constructive engagement" - Washington code for dealing with China - was "dangerous isolation". He cited as the benefits of his policy the growth of US business with China, the freedom (in exile) granted to several prominent dissidents, China's diplomatic support in talks with North Korea and following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and the way Peking has resisted pressure to devalue its currency in the wake of the Asian economic crisis.

Mr Clinton must ensure nothing happens during his visit to dispel this impression of progress.

In the US, it is crucial for Mr Clinton not to seen to kowtow to China, especially on human rights. His words and comportment at the welcoming ceremony on Tiananmen Square - easily the most controversial part of his visit domestically - will have to be judged with extreme care.

A visit to relatives of some of the Tiananmen victims, or a private tribute, would be viewed positively in the US; an apology from President Jiang would be even more welcome - but neither looks likely.

The other major topic for the US is trade. The administration and business both have an interest in reducing the large Chinese trade surplus which stands - by US calculations - at $63bn. But as a champion of free trade Mr Clinton can hardly restrict imports.

Weapons sales are banned under the post-Tiananmen Square sanctions and, Mr Clinton cannot act without other nations.

Bill Clinton's China summit may look more like high-class tourism than the most important foreign trip of his presidency. But if he returns to Washington with an attractive set of videos and no diplomatic faux pas to his name, this may be as much of a success as the White House dare hope for.