Enter the Dragon, Exit Ideology
As Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the United States this week for the first major US-China summit in twelve long, tension-fraught years, a host of political pundits, journals, and even Congressmen are escalating the art of China-bashing. But as the Economist points out, the bashing comes not from the left or the right, but from an odd melange of ideological sources driven less by ideology than by appeal to emotion. For instance, the conservative Weekly Standard and American Spectator have unleashed polemical diatribes against China and its policy, as have the center-ish The New Republic and leftist The Nation. Foreign policy pundits A.M. Rosenthal and Anthony Lewis of the New York Times regularly attack China for its anti-Christian policies and human rights policies, respectively.
Congress has joined the game with a vengeance. Leading the charge against China are Republican Senators Connie Mack and Spencer Abraham, and Representative Frank Wolf on one side of the aisle, and Democratic Majority Leader Dick Gephardt on the other. But many of these stances are more for domestic politics than foreign policy. For example, Gephardt is doing his best to draw distinctions between his own policy and the policies of Al Gore, the favorite for the Democratic nomination for President in 2000. And Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson began his recent inquest into campaign finance by charging that the Chinese government was attempting to buy influence in American politics.
These political stances, based less on political pragmatism than ideology, are verging on the ridiculous. Gephardt, an outspoken opponent of Clinton's free trade policies such as NAFTA, is bashing China just as candidate Clinton did in the run-up to his nomination. Americans generally think foreign policy is boring, and inflammatory rhetoric about the evils of the Reds plays better in Peoria than statistics on how many jobs US-China trade creates. Thompson's stance is one-third serious, two-thirds humorous. The serious third is the implication of American officials accepting money in a quid pro quo for policy favors. If it can be proven that any officials did specifically exchange money for favors, those officials should be in very serious trouble. But the first humorous part is the idea that such a quid pro quo could exist, as if a donation of $100,000 from a Chinese-American businessman could influence trade policies worth billions in a particular direction. The second humorous part is the charge itself, that China is trying to influence American policy. The nation that toppled so many Latin American governments that President Ford had to sign an executive order promising not to do it anymore is now objecting to foreign nations trying to buy influence in America? Object away, Mr. Thompson, but hypocrisy abounds.
If the hypocrisy of US officials complaining about Chinese attempts at influence stopped at the merely silly, no harm would be done. But just as China should not be treated lightly, it should not be threatened lightly. The recent attacks on China are harmful less for the stances themselves than the potential damage to US-China relations. The constant reinforcement of negative images of China may damage long term relations. A recent Harris poll found that China was the nation more Americans viewed as "unfriendly" than any other, with 22% viewing China as "unfriendly/enemy," and a full 60% viewing China as neutral at best. China has replaced the USSR as the nation Americans love to hate. The problem with such public attitudes is that, as indicated before, their Congressmen are listening, and the arm-waving and threatening of these men is interfering in a set of coherent policies, which the Clinton Administration has (finally) decided it needs to pursue.
In no way does this mean that America should "go easy" on China. There are certain areas where China's detractors are dead right, and their continuing pressure makes sure the Clinton Administration gets as much as it can for its own concessions. In this respect, the chorus of nay-sayers plays a vital role in US policy, by reminding China that Americans will not cave in to Chinese demands easily. But right now, US policy toward China needs to ignore the Greek chorus and focus on a few specific areas in which China needs to improve, and can improve. The four areas in which the US should concentrate are, in order of importance, nuclear technology, weapons and small arms sales, human rights, and the growing trade imbalance.
First, China's nuclear assistance to Iran and Pakistan, nations which many suspect have been attempting to convert nuclear power technology to a weapons program, raises a great deal of worry in US foreign policy circles. After all, the two greatest threats to American security in the post-Cold War era are terrorism and nuclear proliferation in the third world. Second, China's continuing sales of non-nuclear weapons technology are destabilizing areas such as Central Africa, where Chinese-made automatic rifles in the hands of guerilla armies have toppled a few regimes of late, and emboldening terrorists, as anti-ship cruise missile sales to Tehran give that regime an authority of force.
Third, China's continuing intransigence in the area of human rights is renowned, and is the principal reason so many pundits, who can rail about morality without having to deal with the real-world fallout, are anti-China. It is easy to be an ideologue on human rights; it is less easy to convert a country from rule of gun to rule of law. And fourth, the trade imbalance threatens to send the US relationship with China the way of the Japanese trade conflicts of the 1980s. Japan was a close ally at the time, and completely reliant on America for its military might. A similar conflict with China could get ugly fast.
The Clinton Administration, seeking to avoid this kind of ugliness, has already had moderate successes in some areas. Officials are close to sealing a deal with China to end Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran and Pakistan. Part of the deal involves the US ensuring that China does not sell its nuclear technology, and in return, the US will actually sell China nuclear reactors, a market that could be up to $50 billion over 20 years. This deal is smart -- it will help ensure that China doesn't misuse its technology, it will ease China's growing energy crisis (which will result in cheaper products for American consumers), and it will ease the trade deficit America is running with China, currently about $40 billion.
In terms of human rights, Clinton has also had some success, if only nominal. President Jiang offered a concession the night before his trip to the US, authorizing China's U.N. envoy to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, obliging China to protect citizens from discrimination. Furthermore, the official Xinhua news agency admitted to some human rights abuses, and said that "as a developing country, China still has a long way to go."
But China has an agenda too, and with the force of billions of potential consumers behind it, it does not compromise when it does not benefit. China wants permanent Most Favored Nation status, and admission to the World Trade Organization. These favors the Clinton administration would be wise to give, after getting as much as possible from China in return. But China also wants concessions on its Taiwan policy, and given Taiwan's wealth and cooperation with US interests in the past, the US should not abandon Taiwan for any price. Realistically, there will be a price that is too high to pay, but if the US allows that price to be known, the Chinese will force the issue. In a poker game, one never tells his opponent at what price he will fold his hand. Unfortunately, Clinton isn't playing poker with Jiang, but bridge, and his partner is Congress. And right now, Clinton doesn't know what hand his own partner is holding.
President Jiang said recently that "In today's world, China and the United States share broad common interests...on important matters which bear on peace and development of mankind. I am confident that through the joint effort of the two sides, the friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and the United States will develop further." Naturally, political speeches should be taken at face value only very rarely. But these words are likely offered more as truth than as Trojan Horse. The detractors on both sides of the ideological spectrum need to realize that China wants to emerge as a world power, and that if handled firmly but respectfully, this emergence will not threaten but help the United States. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have to stop the arm-waving and politicking, and remember that there is no "left" or "right" in foreign policy -- only forward or backward.