When Chinese Gen. Xiong Guangkai arrives at the Pentagon this week, will it signal a resumption of U.S.-Chinese military ties, frozen since the U.S. bombing of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade last May? General Xiong is the most senior Chinese leader to visit Washington since then. Defense officials have high hopes, but other U.S. officials worry the visit could touch off another U.S.-China crisis--over Taiwan.
The key issue: the sale to Taiwan of advanced weaponry, including Aegis-class destroyers that could potentially defend the island against China's medium-range M-11 missiles. Xiong is expected to repeat Beijing's warning that a sale could trigger a harsh Chinese response. But the White House is under pressure to approve the deal in order to insulate Al Gore from Bush's charges that the administration is soft on Beijing.
China watchers say Beijing is already "twitchy" because all three presidential candidates in Taiwan's March election advocate de facto independence. These experts fear the Chinese may show their displeasure by firing missiles into Taiwanese waters (as in 1995 and '96). Defense sources say the administration is quietly urging Beijing to refrain from any action that could jeopardize congressional approval of its bid to join the World Trade Organization, a key Clinton goal. "Both sides want a fresh start," says a senior U.S. official. "But Taiwan is a [red flag] for China's leadership. If they believe the U.S. has decided to re-arm Taiwan, they may decide they have nothing to lose."