Irritation - and diplomacy

Will Peking take on Moscow's old role of rival superpower to the United States? In Washington, Rupert Cornwell detects signs of a return to Cold War simplifications, while in China, Teresa Poole finds resentment growing against Uncle Sam

There is no mystery about what the United States Under-Secretary of State, Peter Tarnoff, can expect to hear when he sits down this weekend with Chinese officials to discuss the parlous state of Sino-American relations. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, explained yesterday, Washington's "top priority" is to honour its "One China" policy with immediate "concrete actions". Last night's expulsion of the detained human rights activist, Harry Wu Hongda, may have improved the atmosphere as far as America is concerned, but for China other far more important issues remain non-negotiable.

As Peking sees it, President Clinton's decision to allow the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the US in June was the culmination of a series of anti-Chinese initiatives by Washington. As far as Peking is concerned, Washington is bent on "splitting the motherland" by continuing to bolster the regime in Taiwan, which the mainland regards as a renegade province. The visit was the last straw for China, which had already become increasingly strident in its complaints about Washington's "big power bullying".

The litany of America's alleged offences against China's dignity is lengthy. Peking maintains that the US persistently interferes in a whole range of "internal" matters including human rights, Tibet, and the country's family planning policies, behaving as if it were the "world cop". The Chinese also resent the way America lambasts them for recent nuclear tests, given that the US has itself carried out 20 times as many. China blames Washington for its failure to gain admission to the World Trade Organisation, and it has still not forgiven its adversary for publicly opposing Peking's bid to host the 2000 Olympics.

In such an embittered mood, the Chinese government is now warning its population to beware the hordes of radical American feminists who, it fears, are set on undermining Peking's successful hosting of the Fourth World Conference On Women, starting next week. Thus has the Sino-US relationship slipped to what the official Xinhua news agency described as "their lowest ebb" since diplomatic ties were established in 1979.

China has always resented any foreign "meddling" in Chinese affairs and views the outside world as determined to keep it down. "It is well known that the Chinese people won their right of development only after driving big Western powers out of China through a century-long struggle," said Xinhua this week. Attacking the US media for its anti-Chinese bias, Xinhua raged: "To put it bluntly, what made the slanderers gnash their teeth was precisely their fear of the 'rise of China'."

No one disputes that China is now rising. The Middle Kingdom confidently expects to become an economic superpower over the next decade and, in the post-Cold War world order, a strategic counterpoint to American global might. In a country where children are taught by rote at an early age how China enjoys a 5,000-year civilisation and invented gunpowder, the compass and printing, the culture's ingrained nationalism now has the opportunity to vent itself in the diplomatic arena. The fact that China is also entering an uncertain period because of the impending death of 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping, only encourages the leadership to fan the patriotic flame.

Restored pride and influence has not, however, led to an acceptance that successful international relations usually involve a degree of compromise. The agreement wrung by Washington from Peking earlier this year on intellectual property rights protection was secured only at the eleventh hour after the countdown had begun on massive punitive trade sanctions against China. Peking's brinkmanship on that occasion achieved nothing but a very public climbdown over the closure of a number of factories producing pirated goods. At the end of the day, America was confident it held the upper hand because of the vast trade imbalance in China's favour.

On issues where Peking feels supremely confident that right is on its side, it still displays a conspicious lack of diplomatic finesse. Take, for instance, the question of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago scattered across the South China Sea, which is claimed all or in part by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Over the past month, China had been making noises that it was prepared to negotiate over the dispute. But this week it emerged that Peking plans to hold military exercises somewhere in the Spratlys, a move that is bound to revive complaints among its Asian neighbours that it is China which is the bully. The Spratlys could be a key test of whether China - uncompromising when dealing with Western countries - can develop a more mature approach to relations with fellow East Asian countries.

For Mr Tarnoff, what matters is whether Harry Wu Hongda's expulsion signals any softening in China's belligerent style of diplomacy with the US. Up until now, the "concrete actions" demanded by Peking as a pre-condition for an improvement in Sino-US relations included an explicit assurance that Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui will not be making any more visits to the US. Peking clearly realised that not even Mr Wu was a big enough bargaining chip to extract this concession. If not mature, China has at least shown on the Harry Wu Hongda case that it can be pragmatic. In the end, Peking did not want the spectre of a jailed Harry Wu Hongda looming over the forthcoming women's conference.

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