Sino-American Relations: A New Stage?

By Min, Lin | New Zealand International Review, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview

Sino-American Relations: A New Stage?


Min, Lin, New Zealand International Review


Lin Min reviews President Clinton's recent nine-day visit to China.

At the end of June, American President Bill Clinton made a highly significant state visit to China, which lasted nine days, one of the longest official visits by an American President on foreign soil. Clinton's delegation, which was the largest ever of its kind to China, included the American Secretary of State, Treasury Secretary, National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, and a number of Senate and Congress members, accompanied by several hundred media people. The visit has been hailed by both Chinese and American sides as a success, and even the American press and some people on Capitol Hill, who had reservations concerning Clinton's trip before he undertook it, have now shifted their position to one of grudging approval. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, has described it as heralding a third phase in Sino-American relations. (The first phase was Nixon's ice-breaking visit to China in 1972, which opened China's door and allowed direct contact between the United States and China for the first time since 1949. The second phase was the Carter administration's full recognition of the People's Republic of China in 1979, and the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.)

Clinton's visit was thus significant in that he was the first US President and also the last of the major Western leaders to visit China since the Tiananmen events of 1989, symbolically indicating the end of China's strained relationship with the West over the last decade. The trip also achieved important, albeit limited, progress in several areas of Sino-American relations. While it is true to say that what was achieved was more symbolic than substantive in terms of solving a number of serious disagreements on certain issues, in terms of global diplomacy the reduction of tensions and the favourable mutual perceptions of the two super-powers have significant implications.

The visit was very well-organised. Clinton's first: stop was the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an, once the centre of Chinese civilisation, and the most prosperous city in the world, the focal point along the Silk Route linking East and West. Clinton and his entourage were welcomed in a manner reminiscent of a traditional imperial ceremony, and this, together with his visit to the site where the Terracotta Army was unearthed and to the provincial history museum, housing impressive Chinese artefacts from over several thousand years, served the purpose of projecting a more positive image of China as a great civilisation.

Serious business

The serious business started in Beijing, the second stop of Clinton's visit. After a formal state welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, the two leaders, Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, President Jiang Zemin, with their key aides, retreated for a session of formal talks. Several pre-negotiated agreements and joint statements, on issues ranging from non-proliferation to the environment, were sealed. The two sides agreed not to target nuclear weapons at each other, echoing agreements that they have both previously reached with Russia. They agreed to increase military exchanges, in the areas of humanitarian aid and disaster relief, military environmental protection, and sending of observers to each other's military exercises.

They also issued a joint statement on nuclear testing on the Indian subcontinent, and vowed to co-operate in trying to contain the escalation of the nuclear arms race in that region. They signed several agreements on the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and committed themselves to working together in the areas of banking and finance, housing, social welfare, health reform, and environmental protection. In addition, business contracts, amounting to more than US$3 billion, were signed. Although the two sides failed to achieve a big breakthrough on any of the key issues, such as China's membership of the World Trade Organisation, those that were agreed upon have been presented as steps forward towards a closer relationship.

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