Not this year. Though John Kerry has criticized the Administration for its economic policies toward China, he and George W. Bush agree that sound relations with Beijing are the key to stability in Asia. So Powell was able to touch down in China nine days before the U.S. election with a mandate that both candidates support: encouraging talks across the Taiwan Strait, and finding a way to persuade North Korea to shut down its nuclear weapons program.
"The Taiwan question is the most important and the most sensitive," remarked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue, shortly before Powell arrived. Powell has said that during his trip he would encourage Beijing to resume a dialogue with Taipei. The Administration, which has consistently stated it does not support independence for Taiwan, was pleased by the tone of the speech given by Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian on Oct. 10, though the initial reaction to the speech from Beijing was hardly a warm one.
The biggest change in U.S. policy that could follow a Kerry victory is his preference for direct talks with North Korea, although Kerry would also like to continue multilateral negotiations. (In the current round of talks, the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia join North Korea at the table.) In the presidential debates, Bush argued that for the U.S. to go one-on-one would squander Beijing's influence with Pyongyang. But analysts say China would be content to see bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea proceed alongside the six-party confab. All in all, China could hardly be happier at the state of its relationship with the U.S. "Powell's trip shows that the U.S. takes China seriously," says Chu Shulong, a political scientist at Beijing's Tsinghua University, "and right now that is enough to keep relations steady." Amid all the hubbub about America's global role, that's a quiet change of historic significance.