Over the years, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has come to view herself as a China hand. And now, amid mounting tensions between China and Taiwan, the California Democrat is increasingly asserting herself behind the scenes as a would-be peacemaker.
In the process, Feinstein is playing on a rare set of personal relationships that she has nurtured with the three men now at the center of the standoff: the presidents of China, Taiwan and the United States. To each, Feinstein has been dispensing strong and unequivocal advice.
"I sometimes say that in my last life maybe I was Chinese," Feinstein said.
The senator's growing involvement in the Beijing-Taipei dispute points up the potential pitfalls when grappling with the competing interests on either side of the Taiwan Strait--a tricky task that has tripped more than one professional Sinologist over the years.
Feinstein admits to being stunned, for instance, by China's rage over last year's near-unanimous congressional resolution--which she backed--allowing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States for a college reunion at Cornell University.
She grasped the depth of Beijing's anger only during a five-hour session with Chinese President Jiang Zemin shortly after the vote, when Jiang bitterly accused the Clinton administration of betraying him by reversing course and granting Lee a visa.
"It became very clear to me that there was a problem that was deeper than anything I understood," Feinstein recalled in an interview. "I saw that the issue of Taiwan was real deep and visceral."
She told Jiang that China in the future must--like Taiwan--make its views known clearly and forcefully in Washington. That advice bore fruit when a high-level Chinese delegation visited Capitol Hill this month for a frank luncheon discussion with key senators, which Feinstein arranged at China's behest.
The advice also provided grist for both her supporters and her critics.
Her detractors say that Feinstein's close ties with Jiang--dating to 1985 when they were mayors of sister cities San Francisco and Shanghai--have reinforced the perception that she is an apologist for a nation that shows little regard for human rights and one in which her husband has sizable business investments.
"She's looked at on the Hill as Beijing's person here," said one GOP Senate aide.
But others come to her defense, including Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "We frequently meet with people who may be undesirable," Lugar said. "She has been very active for some time, and it's very appropriate. She raises important questions."
Feinstein said her activities in China have nothing to do with her husband's business interests there. She said she simply wants to promote greater understanding between China and the United States--advice that she personally takes to heart.
"You've got to go and get to know China . . . get to know people . . . understand what the thinking is. You've got to have discussion after discussion after discussion and then, when you've had that, you become a kind of friend," Feinstein said.
In recent days, Feinstein's criticism of Beijing for its missile tests near Taiwan has confounded critics who have said that she is soft on China. During last week's lunch with top Chinese officials, according to several participants, Feinstein made no secret of her unhappiness with China's saber-rattling.
Feinstein declared publicly afterward: "We view the missile exercises . . . as provocative and unnecessary."
She also has delivered an equally blunt message to Lee, who once served as mayor of Taipei--with which San Francisco also had a sister-city relationship. Her message: "What is really necessary is for [the leaders of] Taiwan to make a statement in word and in deed that they will adhere to a one-China policy."
Feinstein has spoken as well with top White House aides, including National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, and she is seeking a meeting with President Clinton, with whom she has worked closely on several legislative issues.
"Where America has so badly missed the boat is the inability to take a leader [Jiang]--who wants to see an increasing standard of living, a better situation for all Chinese, the development of a rule of law, the privatization of companies, the opening of the country to trade and commerce and ideas--and give him face and support and enable him to distance himself from the hard-liners," Feinstein said.
"The president needs to go before the American people . . . to make the case for why this relationship is important. It is important for peace and security in the world."