Reprinted with permission by The Straits Times, October 28, 2002

WASHINGTON - Expectations for the summit between presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin last Friday in Crawford were so low that many pundits derided it as purely 'symbolic' or 'ceremonial'.

Such thinking is based mainly on the premise that Washington and Beijing have such divergent interests that a 90-minute meeting cannot narrow differ-ences on issues such as Taiwan, human rights and what China calls 'American global hegemony'.

Cynics on both sides believe long-term ties remain uncertain at best despite the common position on terrorism and Mr Bush's obsession with Iraq, which compels him to be conciliatory towards Beijing.

In Washington, influential right-wingers believe China is the primary threat to the US in the future if not now.

And in Beijing, many are disturbed by Washington's new hawkish posture, such as Mr Bush's new doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and implicit warning to China not to challenge America's military might.

To the belligerents on both sides, it was a disappointment that the Crawford summit should have taken place at all.

The hawks in Washington believe that getting tough with Beijing is the best and only approach. They point to China's muted response to the substantial revision on America's Taiwan policy as proof that it understands only toughness.

To them, inviting China's top leader to Mr Bush's ranch, an honour reserved for only the most trusted allies, is a mistake.

Meanwhile, Mr Jiang's pro-America policy has its own sceptics at home, who think that a superficial summitry is unlikely to reverse Mr Bush's shift on Taiwan.

Despite all these doomsayers, Crawford did yield at least two positive surprises.

For the first time, Mr Bush announced that the US does not support Taiwan's pursuit of independence.

When he took over the White House, his office had refused to commit itself to a one-China policy.

Thus, his affirmation of a 'no-support policy' on Taiwan independence could be considered a quantum gain to Mr Jiang.

The other surprise is the announcement that Vice-President Dick Cheney will visit China next spring.

He is known to be one of the top scoffers of China in Washington. His office has reportedly allied with Pentagon's hawks in pushing for several key decisions disadvantageous to China.

Although a visit to China may not change his views, getting him to interact with China's new leaders would help bilateral dialogue.

All said, it is premature for Beijing to celebrate the achievements at Crawford.

By hosting Mr Jiang and staking much political capital on improving relations with Beijing, Mr Bush also expects cooperation on a burning issue: North Korea.

The recent disclosure that it is pursuing nuclear weapons poses a major challenge to Mr Bush.

Being North Korea's only major ally, China is seen as an important player who can pressure it to dismantle its weapons programme.