On the eve of renewed Sino-US human rights talks, analysts have predicted Washington will not take a tough line for fear of risking Beijing's backing on issues such as Iraq and North Korea.
The US delegation led by Lorne Craner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, arrived in Beijing on Saturday and is scheduled to begin week-long talks with Chinese officials today.
Mr Craner is expected to raise a series of thorny issues, including religious freedom, workers' rights, China's treatment of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group and Beijing's policies in the tense minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, a US Embassy official said.
Rights talks were suspended following the US-led Nato bombing of a Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. They have been held on and off since October last year.
Analysts said the new round of talks and a flurry of visits to China by top US officials - Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and Admiral James Fargo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, have all been to Beijing in recent weeks - shows relations are good.
But the human rights discussions are resuming at a time when the US needs China's help on Iraq and North Korea, and will be reluctant to irk Beijing by being heavily critical on rights matters, analysts said.
"I think the Americans will be treating China with kid gloves. They need China more than China needs them at this moment," said Paul Harris, a political science professor at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.
"The Americans are most concerned about Iraq and North Korea right now. They want to focus on Iraq and need China not to get in the way. They don't want to worry about North Korea, and need the help of the Chinese to push that problem aside."
China is one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council. Washington is likely to seek to drum up support for a UN resolution to authorise military action against Iraq.
Washington will want China's support - or, at least, its abstention, Professor Harris said.
China, as a long-time ally and aid provider to the North Korean regime, is also crucial to US efforts to pressure Pyongyang to at least tone down its decision to resume a frozen nuclear programme.
The latest crisis blew up last Thursday when Pyongyang announced it would reactivate a plutonium-based nuclear programme to satisfy its energy needs. The move came after global shipments of oil were suspended following claims by the US that the North had admitted it was developing nuclear weapons.
Taiwan and human rights will likely remain contentious issues for the two sides, which have enjoyed warmer relations since China offered assistance in the US-led war against terrorism. Current attention seems to be focused on areas where they can co-operate, said Zhu Feng, director of the International Security Programme at Peking University.
A US Embassy official said Mr Craner would also discuss criminal justice issues and the legal system with Chinese officials and raise a list of political prisoners of particular concern to Washington.
He is also due to travel to the western, Muslim-dominated region of Xinjiang, where rights groups say Beijing is using terror concerns as a pretext to suppress separatist activities as well as peaceful dissent.
South China Morning Post
December 16, 2002