By Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Premier Wen Jiabao, one of China's more sympathetic leaders, begins an American tour Monday that is shaping up to be one of the liveliest Sino-US exchanges in some time.
Until two weeks ago, when Taiwan suddenly zoomed onto the radar, Mr. Wen's visit appeared to be a platform for improving US-China relations. Issues like China's lead role in dealing with North Korea, the US lifting of steel tariffs, and the smoothing of trade relations, all looked to carry the two giant powers far past the early confrontation in 2001 over a downed US spy plane.
Now, with Taiwan scheduling a controversial referendum next March, and China threatening military action, the visit will also open some of the more fragile aspects of relations. Ties with China have long been a seesaw affair that have involved US admonitions on human rights. But to discuss Taiwan's rights and status is a test that neither side wanted; it has reportedly created deep divisions in a White House that has been trying to separate its economic cooperation with Beijing, from its military support of Taipei.
"There is worry among hard-liners that Bush will now kowtow to Mr. Wen, and sell out Taiwan," says Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don't think that will happen. You will not find a more sympathetic ear for Taiwan than this White House. But this issue creates some strain."
Yet Wen's moderate temperament and approach make him one of the more desirable interlocutors the Americans could have hoped for, say analysts.
Since replacing economic reform czar Zhu Rongji last year, Wen, along with new head of state Hu Jintao, has developed a reputation as a "voice of the people" in China. Part of the 12-member elite that runs China, he is the first youthful "fourth generation" leader to visit the States. His reputation is of a man equally at home in the countryside and corporate settings. Due to his highly regarded political talents and economic skills, he rose despite being a protege of former Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a Tiananmen-era reformer who has lived under house arrest for more than a decade after he and Wen met with students demonstrators.
Wen arrives as the representative of both an ancient civilization and of a ruling party structure whose origins are 19th-century Marxism and 20th-century peasant revolutionary Maoism - though one now evolving, as the phrase goes here, to "new realities" of capitalism.
China's economic dynamism - evidenced by a $120 billion trade surplus with the US alone - is changing its relations with the US and the world. …