Brought closer by differences

2002-02-23Asia Times

BEIJING - The two-day visit to Beijing by US President George W Bush has brought America and China closer. But, in an interesting twist, the new glue for this relationship is not the points the two countries have in common, but those on which they have long differed, and which now more than at any other time have been brought out into the open.

To be sure, the two sides stressed the common points - their collaboration toward world peace and stability, and the fight against terrorism. But what came across even stronger was the frank debate on their different views - on values, religious and human rights, geopolitical issues, and Taiwan.

On Friday at Qinghua University, Bush was dogged by students' questions about why America spoke only of settlement of the Taiwan issue and not of Taiwan reunification. Similarly, at a joint news conference, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was hammered by two questions from American journalists on the arrest of some Catholic bishops. Both events - Bush's Qinghua appearance and the news conference - were broadcast live on Chinese TV.

Both at the joint news conference and at Qinghua, Bush stressed the value of freedom of political choice, noting that his own power was not paramount and was limited in scope and time. He also stressed the positive value of religious faith.

Along similar lines, Jiang responded on the arrests of the bishops by arguing that in China there is freedom of religion but that everybody must respect the law. In this way Jiang shifted the argument from an issue of principle (freedom of religion) to one of legality, and therefore specificities difficult to discuss in a general forum.

Without harsh words but with frankness, Bush argued for the value of freedom and pointed out how China has changed for the better in the 25 years since his first visit, through granting more freedom to its people. The students at Qinghua responded by pointing at the high crime rate in the United States, which, in Chinese eyes, deprives the citizens of their human right to security.

In sum, the differences between the two countries are deep, and not easy to resolve. But the fact that for the first time they were tabled clearly and unequivocally in public in China means that a dialogue on them is possible. Enhanced collaboration and exchanges on a wide range of issues are intended to increase mutual understanding. But more important is that dialogue has moved from merely recognizing the common points while shelving the differences, to talking openly about the differences in a non-antagonistic fashion.

Until now, China and the US have often beaten around the bush, tackling their differences only when one side or the other wanted to pick a fight. Now Bush has come out into the open and Jiang has followed him, facing the differences squarely. It is a huge step in improving understanding between the two sides. The fact that China has accepted this challenge is tantamount to an open admission that the Chinese government doesn't feel defensive anymore about some of its values, and that improvements specifically in the reform of the political system, for which Bush pressed so hard, are afoot.

The US president also openly endorsed the Taiwan Act that requires that the US come to the defense of the island if it is attacked. But Bush took a clear stand against any provocation from either side of the Taiwan Strait, a clear hint to the Taiwanese leadership not to move down the path of a unilateral declaration of independence, which would enrage Beijing.

The frankness of the dialogue has struck a chord in Beijing, where the restive Internet chat rooms, full of anti-American rhetoric before the visit, generally gave the thumbs-up to both leaders.

It is appropriate that 30 years after the ground-breaking mission of the late US president Richard Nixon to Beijing, the two countries have shed their shyness about dealing with their differences, laying new grounds for improved relations. Many troubling issues remain. Arms proliferation and the Bush administration's National Missile Defense system are two thorns in Chinese side, even as human rights and deep differences in the political systems will trouble the souls of the US public for many years to come. Yet, this time, these issues have not been swept under the carpet or thrown like stones against each other; they have been faced in a constructive manner.

This doesn't mean that no dispute will ever again break out between China and the United States. But it does mean that a new season in Sino-US relations has started, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the world. (2002-02-23 Asia Times)


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