Beijing views the United States as the one country that can influence China's emergence as a major global political and economic power in both a positive and a negative direction. Under Deng Xiaoping, Beijing actively sought to cultivate a good bilateral relationship. Hard-liners, suspicious of U.S. ideological influence, asserted themselves in March 1996, when missile tests in the Straits of Taiwan were timed to intimidate Taiwan's politicians and electorate as the country held its first direct elections to the presidency. The United States responded by deploying U.S. naval forces in the region. Since then, the hard-liners have played a less prominent role. Deng's successors broadly favor cooperation, but lack the late paramount leader's dominating influence. It is thus very important to Beijing that relations remain on track until the planned exchange of formal presidential visits, which could happen as early as next year.
The uncertainty over U.S. China policy means that this cannot be guaranteed. The conflict in Washington has its ironies. As a candidate during the 1992 presidential election, Clinton attacked President Bush for "coddling" the "butchers of Beijing." Republicans in Congress, by contrast, generally favored constructive engagement with China, while liberal and protectionist Democrats usually opposed it. The liberal and protectionist Democrats have stayed in place, but Clinton and many congressional Republicans have swapped positions. U.S. policy-makers often find the operation of Chinese politics quite incomprehensible, but Chinese officials must find the United States equally perplexing. It will be some time before both sides establish better mutual understanding.