I am sitting in my International Relations of East Asia class, and we've got a "current events in East Asia" section at the beginning of each day. And in it, the Olympics keep coming up. I am thinking "you know, when the Olympics were held in Salt Lake City or Athens, nobody cared." The Beijing Olympics, on the other hand, is getting more buzz than the suppression of Burmese demonstrators, spats in the South China Sea over oil drilling rights, and other major East Asian problems. Why?
Turns out, China is bent on the Olympics being a big success. For China, this is perhaps the largest major sign of respect from the West since the Nixon-Mao meetings in 1971. China's emotional and societal investment in these Olympics have led to not only obnoxious spending in Beijing to make it west-friendly, but has kept the Chinese in an accommodating state to their neighbors and the West; it is clear the Chinese hope to come out of the Olympics this August with the respect and admiration of the West, and are trying very hard to avoid drawing any bad publicity leading up to the summer. This need for good public relations has kept the Chinese government in check, and should provide a window for the United States and the West to forge an improved relationship with the Chinese that could extend far beyond August.
What important issues is the US taking advantage of now? Skillfully enough, Washington is tackling two of the four most pressing issues that China is involved with: North Korea and Chinese human rights (whereas the trade gap and the Taiwan issue are not particularly being pushed). Taiwan may have had an opportunity to make moves for independence before August because of the self-restraint of the Chinese government, but the victory of the KMT in Taiwan has neutralized the independence movement, and probably led to the US State Department's dropping of the subject. In fact, I have just heard from Prof. Fravel that she has come out and officially called a referendum in Taiwan to join the UN under the name of Taiwan "provocative," which is a strong assurance to the Chinese that the US is not going to back any pro-independence movements on the part of Taiwan.
On the topic of human rights, Secretary of State Rice has used the current political landscape to re-open human rights development talks with the Communist Party. These talks had been closed for five years, but recent human rights pressure from Steven Spielberg (who quit the Olympics because of human rights issues) and the UK government (which specifically banned its athletes from speaking out against the human rights situation in China) has pushed the Beijing government to look for a better public relations stance on the issue, and the US Department of State was happy to give them such an opportunity by re-opening the talks. The dialogue will address both internal Chinese human rights issues (in particular religious freedom and freedom of speech) and China's relationship with the Sudanese government over Darfur (though China has already sent some token troops to the UN peacekeeping mission there in hopes of bolstering its position on the topic).
On North Korea, the Chinese promised Secretary Rice that they would use their influence over North Korea (which has been larger than that of any other country in the world since North Korea's inception) to convince them to fully disarm their nuclear weapons program. China has, in the past, been instrumental in making sure the six-nation talks over North Korea's detonated nuclear weapon went smoothly. China took a back seat after North Korea promised to halt its program, but the United States has been asking for help in finishing the disarmament once and for all.
Interestingly, Rice has also been looking to stay friendly with the North Korean government, in what she has called "Violin Diplomacy," by allowing the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to play in Pyongyang (including pieces like "An American in Paris," the US National Anthem, and the North Korean National Anthem).
China's self-restraint and need for good public image seems to be leading to improved foreign relations throughout East Asia, including relations between third-party countries. The trick here is for the United States to take advantage of this opportunity to begin a full-frontal engagement of China and lock in diplomatic and economic ties that can set a good ending note for the Bush Administration and present a good-natured opening in Sino-American relations for the next US president.