Jim Sasser: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time?

When Ambassador James Sasser had his first get-together with American journalists after arriving in Beijing in February, he got right to the point. During a chat over tea, he informed them that the chocolate chip cookies they were munching were made from a recipe of Hillary Rodham Clinton's.

With 18 years of congressional experience and close connections to both President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, the former senator from Tennessee is banking that his credentials as a Washington insider will make up for a dearth of China experience and allow him to mend fragile Sino-U.S. relations. The Chinese seem open to that. "We hope, because of his special role, he can talk to Congress so as not to fan the flames," says Su Ge, professor of international studies at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing.

As a result, both the Chinese and the Americans want to make Sasser's diplomatic posting work. After eight months without a U.S. ambassador in Beijing, everyone seems relieved. "The fact that he's coming in during a crisis has given him a perfectly natural excuse to call on everyone under the sun," says a Western diplomat. Sasser's meetings with Chinese leaders haven't been the customary five-minute sessions over jasmine tea. Instead, Sasser, 59, has been sitting down for lengthy talks with President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and other top leaders.

BATTLEFIELD PROMOTION. The Chinese hope to establish a new channel through Sasser partly because their faith in State Dept. promises has been shaken. It was Secretary of State Warren Christopher who vowed Washington wouldn't grant a visa to Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui--only to be overturned. "They are treating Sasser like he's at a higher protocol level than a normal ambassador," says an American executive based in Beijing.

By contrast, J. Stapleton Roy, the previous ambassador and an experienced China hand--he was born in China to missionary parents--left town last summer complaining that he was being denied access to the Chinese leadership. "Roy wasn't powerful enough on either side: Washington or Beijing," the executive says. "He couldn't get on the phone and just call up Clinton like Sasser can."

Although Roy was China-savvy, he often appeared impatient with people who didn't understand the issues. Sasser, the good ol' Southern boy, tells jokes and tries to get along with all. "It's clear watching him operate that he knows how to talk to people. He's funny and laid-back," says Anne Stevenson-Yang, director of China operations at the U.S.-China Business Council.

FADING SMILES. However, with the hard politics of a U.S. Presidential campaign bound to cause complications with a tough-talking Chinese leadership, relations could easily sour further. The issues of China's admission to the World Trade Organization, its most-favored-nation status, intellectual property ripoffs, arms sales, and human rights all remain obstacles to better relations.

Sasser can't expect the red carpet to remain permanently unrolled. He must keep the Chinese interested and listening to him. If they trust him enough, they might moderate some of their most egregious actions. The new ambassador is going to need every scrap of charm and every connection back home to pull off what could be the diplomatic role of a lifetime.

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