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Thursday, June 25, 1998 Published at 05:47 GMT 06:47 UK

New era or new cold war?

Both sides hope for their relationship will blossom

Bill Clinton's visit to China aims to usher in a new era of Chinese-American cooperation. But as the BBC Chinese Affairs Analyst James Miles reports, a US-Sino partnership will be difficult to forge given fundamental differences between them.

It is no surprise that President Clinton's visit to China will be watched with interest around the world. How the world's only superpower and its fastest emerging potential rival interact will shape the global security and economic landscape of the new millennium.

One of the most interested parties are Mr Clinton's friends and rivals at home. Mr Clinton's nine-day trip to China is the focus of a barrage of attacks from political foes and human rights activists who accuse him of making unnecessary compromises with a repressive and, in the view of some, hostile nation.

But it is a sense of China's crucial importance to long-term American interests that convinced President Clinton to brush aside fierce domestic criticism of his China policy and go on one of the most controversial foreign trips of his presidency.

Mr Clinton's stated aim is to forge what he calls a strategic partnership with China. Beijing's leadership says it shares that goal. But underlying this rhetoric is a profound suspicion in both capitals of each other's intentions.

[ image: China's millions of children will be affected by the outcome]
China's millions of children will be affected by the outcome
Beijing sees a United States that tries to impose its values on the rest of the world and change political systems that fail to embrace those values. Washington sees China as a developing regional if not world power that will only behave responsibly if it sees diplomatic or economic advantages in doing so.

When the two countries talk about a strategic partnership, therefore, what they mean is that they want to avoid letting their suspicions and differences lead to another Cold War. The horror of potential confrontation between the two countries became apparent two years ago when the United States moved two aircraft carrier battle groups towards Taiwan to warn China against threatening the island. For both countries, the impetus to forge a new partnership came from that crisis.

There are many potential flashpoints in the Sino-US relationship, but Taiwan remains one of the biggest. China says it's the most important issue of all.

Beijing wants Washington to stop arming the island and to state explicitly that it will prevent Taiwan from achieving international recognition. Washington is unwilling to give the kind of explicit commitments that Beijing is looking for.

Bill Clinton's determination to visit China in the face of strong domestic opposition will be warmly appreciated in Beijing. But underlying tensions behind the expressions of friendship will continue to make their relationship a volatile one.

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US State Department's China home page

Official Chinese site on Clinton's visit

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In this section

Special report: Clinton in China

Historic visit in review

Analysis: Did the trip succeed?

Clinton battles China syndrome

The US and China: An uneasy relationship

Is China a US investor's dream?

China hopes to join trade club dashed

Who's at China's top table?

Human rights flashpoints

Making money in China