It is a measure of the volatile nature of the relationship that this is only the Secretary of State's second trip to China. His first, in March 1994, was an unmitigated disaster. On that occasion, John Shattuck, the assistant secretary for human rights, infuriated Chinese leaders by holding a preliminary meeting with China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng. By the time Mr Christopher flew into town, the authorities had detained a string of well-known dissidents and the visit degenerated into mutual recrimination and sharp exchanges over China's abysmal human rights record. Human rights will again cloud this week's meetings, following the recent sentencing of the pro-democracy activist, Wang Dan, to 11 years in prison. But the US policy is now officially one of engagement with China, with human rights only one of many disputes over which Washington says it wants negotiation rather than confrontation. Those disagreements include China's perceived military threat to Taiwan; Washington's barriers to World Trade Organisation entry for China; intellectual property rights violations; Peking's alleged weapons sales to "rogue" states; and a $35bn (pounds 21bn) trade imbalance in China's favour.
Mr Christopher's visit will set the tone for the meeting of President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum which convenes in Manila later this week. That meeting, in its turn, could yield a much-wanted prize for Mr Jiang - a timetable for reciprocal presidential state visits next year.
The gulf that has yet to be bridged, however, can be measured by the torrent of anti-American rhetoric which has appeared in the media over the past few months. At the more risible end of the spectrum are comments such as one in the lesser-known Chinese Material News - that Americans are "shoddy teddy bears with dirty cotton stuffing". Rather more threatening was a publicised quote from Mi Zhenyu, at the Academy of Military Sciences, that the Chinese should "quietly nurse our sense of vengeance".
In the run-up to Mr Christopher's arrival the Chinese signals have been mixed. Last week, the foreign ministry spokesman said China hoped the visit could "help set Sino-US relations on a healthy and stable path". But on Sunday the front page of the official China Daily reported that Sino-US relations had degenerated to a "para-Cold War" stage.
From Washington's perspective, the US has already done just that. Not a month has gone by recently without a visit to Peking by a senior US official. But Washington now faces the problem that China's notion of "engagement" may be very different from the West's. Integrating China into international institutions and systems depends on it accepting its subsequent obligations and the occasional compromise.
Professor David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Centre for 0n Studies in Washington, said there was "a great deal of ambivalence" among Chinese officials. "On the one hand they want integration for status reasons. They are a great power, they think. They want to be at the table of great powers. But ... they want to change the rules. Is China a status quo power? I would answer, no."
Encouraged by the return of Hong Kong, Chinese rhetoric seethes with a determination to redress perceived grievances. "China seeks to disperse global power and particularly weaken the preponderant power of the US in world affairs," said Professor Shambaugh.
In doing so, he predicted, China would remain a "truculent and suspicious partner" for the US, Europe, Japan and others.
China still believes that the US remains intent on containing rather than engaging. In any case, Chinese leaders would regard such a policy of engagement as part of the Western world's attempt to push domestic political change.
The US, for its part, increasingly feels that it is the only country willing to stand up to China on human rights and multilateral issues. Last week, the European Union pointedly criticised America's demanding criteria for China's entry into the WTO. The US Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, retorted that other countries were making the US take the lead to avoid offending Peking.
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