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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 15:20 GMT
US-China dialogue warms
President George Bush and President Jiang Zemin
The US worked to ease tension after the spy plane row
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

President Bush promised a new, tougher approach to China when he entered office.

And early moves by his administration showed the influence of hawks in his foreign policy team.

But as he arrives in China, 30 years to the day after President Richard Nixon's historic trip, the hawks are quiet as the war on terrorism takes priority in US foreign policy.

However, experts in Sino-US relations say that it is unclear whether this rhetorical shift will dramatically affect policy between the two nations.

Stronger stance

George W Bush, the candidate, tried to draw a distinction between his policy towards China and that of then President Bill Clinton.
Chinese mobile missile launcher
The US has pursued a missile defence system despite Chinese objections

President Clinton had seen China as a strategic partner, looking to engage China and pushed for its inclusion in the World Trade Organisation.

But George W Bush cast China as a "strategic competitor".

And after his election, President Bush outlined changes in policy that reflected this shift from partner to competitor.

US military strategy had been shifting its focus from Europe to Asia. Warren Cohen, Professor of history and noted China expert at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says ship and ballistic missile submarines have also been moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The administration also changed its stance towards Taiwan. The Bush administration strengthened military relations with the island and sold it one of the largest arms packages ever.

Mr Bush said that the US would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan.

Spy plane standoff

And then came the international stand-off over the collision between a US surveillance plane and Chinese fighter.

But more than simply highlighting the tensions between the US and China, it also highlighted the divisions within Mr Bush's foreign policy team over policy towards China.
EP-3 surveillance plane
Hawks in the US were silenced during the stand-off over a downed spy plane

Members of the administration that had been hawkish on China, including Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, were silenced, according to Robert Ross, professor of political science at Boston College.

Mr Ross said President Bush told Mr Wolfowitz and other hawks: "I don't want to see headlines that cause me problems."

Although the stand-off strained Sino-US relations, Mr Bush toned down the rhetoric and described the relationship as constructive and productive.

September 11

The administration continued its push for warmer relations with China. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Beijing in the July.

The rapprochement continued after the attacks of September 11.

By all accounts, China has been helpful in the US war on terrorism.

China voted for resolutions in the United Nations supporting the US war against terrorism.

"China has played the game very nicely, very cleverly, and the administration has responded to that," Mr Cohen said.

And hawks in the administration now have another outlet, Mr Ross said, adding: "They see reduced merit in provoking China. They have to pick their battles."

And Mr Bush also has pressure to maintain good relations with a country that American business sees as one of the largest untapped markets in the world.

"Main pressure for more agreeable policy towards China comes from business community, and major business interests have been very supportive of this president," Mr Cohen said.

Problems remain

But China watchers say that the changes over the last year reflect more of a shift in rhetoric and priorities than policy.
Taiwan naval officers
Robert Ross: The US now has a de facto alliance with Taiwan

Mr Ross sees little change on key elements of US policy towards China.

The US has also pushed ahead with arms sales to India and closer military ties with Australia, with the intention of preparing for possible conflict with China, Mr Ross added.

The Bush administration has also pushed ahead with plans to develop a missile defence system, which China opposes because it believes that it undermines its military deterrent, he said.

Mr Bush's visit to China will be an indication of whether the warming dialogue between the two nations signals a shift in policy.

See also:

17 Sep 01 | Business
China enters WTO fold
22 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
China breaks silence on 'bugged' plane
24 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
US opts for 'strategic balance'
21 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Q&A: Taiwan's relations with China
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