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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Bush, Jiang draw closer to their divide

HONG KONG -- It is ironic that both Washington and Beijing consider the 30-hour visit to China by U.S. President George W. Bush a great success. After all, neither party got what it wanted most from the other. The United States did not get the antiproliferation agreement it wanted from China and the Chinese did not get the sympathy they wanted regarding their position on Taiwan.

In fact, Bush, perhaps surprisingly, went out of his way to declare America's commitment to the defense of Taiwan. He did not once mention the three Sino-American joint communiques in public, something that had become a ritual for visiting American presidents. Indeed, he virtually humiliated his Chinese hosts by affirming his support for the Taiwan Relations Act, a domestic American law under which the United States pledged to help Taiwan defend itself.

While speaking at Tsinghua University, Bush was asked whether the U.S. still abided by the three Sino-American communiques. The American president said, "When my country makes an agreement, we stick with it," and then, rather surprisingly, cited not the communiques but the Taiwan Relations Act, which was not an international agreement at all.

One student pointed out that Bush always talked about a "peaceful resolution" of the dispute between mainland China and Taiwan, but never used the term "peaceful reunification." That was an astute observation, especially since, just the previous day, Bush had voiced support for a reunified Korea.

The Chinese leadership has clearly made a strategic decision to maintain good relations with the U.S. at almost any price. It swallowed hard and declared that the visit would "give new impetus to the improvement and development of the Sino-U.S. relationship," in the words of the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Yang Jiechi.

Actually, the visit probably did lay the groundwork for a more stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship. Chinese President Jiang Zemin made it clear that Beijing desires closer ties with Washington at virtually all levels. And, it seems, the U.S. was amenable to this idea. As Condoleeza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said, there will now be a "deepening of the relationship at various levels."

Evidently, the Bush administration, too, has decided that it is in the strategic interests of the U.S. to strengthen ties with China. Beijing, after all, can be helpful not only in the war against terrorism, but in many other areas as well.

This positive evaluation of China is probably due, at least in part, to Bush's personal belief that China has made fantastic progress in the last quarter century, and is likely to be transformed even further in the coming years. Bush was clearly impressed by achievements made by the Chinese since 1975, when he visited the country as a young man while his father was the U.S. envoy in Beijing.

"I was here in 1975," he said at Tsinghua. "It is an amazing transformation." For instance, he said, "in 1975, everybody wore the same clothes. Now, people pick their own clothes. Recognizing the desires of the individual in the marketplace is part of a free society. It is a part of the definition of freedom. And I see that as the most significant change that I can see, besides the new buildings and all the construction."

So struck was he by the changes China has undergone that, when he climbed the Great Wall -- for the second time since 1975 -- Bush remarked, "Same wall, different country."

And so enthusiastic was Bush of a changing China that he declared, in his Tsinghua speech: "America welcomes the emergence of a strong and peaceful and prosperous China." This statement, aimed at reassuring Beijing that the U.S. wished China well and did not want to keep it down, was undoubtedly silently applauded in Beijing, though it is likely to be controversial within certain quarters in Washington, including supporters of the Republican administration.

Still, both Bush and Jiang acknowledged that there were serious differences between their countries. While China wants to be reunified with Taiwan, by force if necessary, Bush made known his support only for "a peaceful resolution." And when Jiang was asked if he supported the use of "all necessary means" to bring about the American goal of a regime change in Iraq, the Chinese leader replied, "the most important thing is that peace be valued most."

In his Tsinghua speech, which was broadcast live, Bush tried to bridge the cultural and values gap between the U.S. and China. Each of his sentences was rendered into Chinese by his interpreter. However, when Bush concluded his remarks by saying: "Listen, thank you for letting me come, God bless you all," she was clearly stumped. She faithfully translated the first part of the sentence but didn't even attempt to translate the second.

Chinese simply don't go around saying "God bless you," something that is almost second nature to Bush. Her inability to put into Chinese something that the American president probably says half a dozen times a day speaks volumes of the gulf that still divides the two societies.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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