China and the United States are close to signing a formal agreement on building new embassies in their two capitals to replace ones that are too old and small, an official mainland newspaper reported yesterday.
Global Times, a subsidiary of the People's Daily, said that under the agreement the US would receive a plot of 40,000 square metres in the Liangmahe section of Chaoyang district in northeast Beijing, and would give China 11,000 square metres in the diplomatic quarter of Washington. China would also keep its existing embassy.
For the new US embassy, Washington would sign a contract to rent the land for 90 years, with an option for a further 70 years.
For security reasons, the new building is likely to be designed by an American, with most of it built by Americans and only non-secure areas constructed employing Chinese workers.
The US Embassy will use public bidding for the design and construction, which will take several years.
The Beijing Government has been preparing the land in Liangmahe for new embassies for the past year, knocking down dozens of restaurants, shops and small firms on the site.
The only diplomatic building there now is the luxurious home of Japanese Ambassador Sakutaro Tanino, which has a large landscaped garden and is surrounded by a wall high enough to prevent people on the street from seeing inside.
The current US Embassy is an easy target - a few metres from the street and protected only by a steel fence. It was badly damaged in May 1999 by thousands of demonstrators who threw stones and bottles in protest against the Nato bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
The need for a more secure site is one important reason for the move. Another is that the current embassy is spread over four sites, one in a skyscraper and three in the Jianguomenwai embassy area, where height levels are restricted.
This results in a substantial amount of time being wasted going from one site to another, with delays increased by rigorous security checks at each entrance. The US will give up all four sites when it moves.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington suffers from similar problems of overcrowding and lack of space and parking. It is housed in two buildings, one of six storeys built in 1926 and the other of 11 storeys built in 1946. Both are subject to preservation orders.
The lack of space has forced the military, commercial, cultural and education sections of the embassy to move to offices outside. The new embassy will take about five years to build and China will retain the existing building and have the right to additional land if needed.
Negotiations between the two governments on new embassies began in 1991, with additional items added to the agenda in 1995. The two sides apparently broke off talks in the summer of 1999 over the Nato bombing before resuming them later that year, leading to the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding. If the talks go smoothly, the two could sign a formal agreement soon.