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Asia Expert Says U.S.-China Relations Booming

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 12, 2003

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Elizabeth C. Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says there has been “a sea change” in the administration’s policies toward China. What provoked it? Beijing’s support for U.S. policies on terror, North Korea, and— to an extent— Iraq. “The fact that China has for the most part supported the United States as it has pursued its securityF interests has meant a great deal to President Bush and to the administration,” she says. “It is really what has driven the bilateral relationship.”

Economy is a co-organizer, with Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of a one-day conference on U.S.-China relations. It will be held in the Senate Caucus Room in the U.S. Capitol on September 24.

Economy was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 12, 2003.


James Kelly, the State Department’s assistant secretary for east Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the other day that the U.S.-China relationship “is, on some fronts, the best it has been in years.” How would you describe the relationship?

I think Kelly has it about right. In fact, relations between the United States and China are actually better now than at any time since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. This will come as a surprise to many people, given the emphasis from some U.S. officials in the Bush administration’s early days who labeled China the next “great threat”--the next Soviet Union. There has really been a sea change within the administration in terms of its approach to China.

What caused that?

There are three reasons for this, all of them rooted in the priority the Bush administration places on its security agenda: 9/11, the war with Iraq, and North Korea. In each of these areas, China has been an essential partner for the United States. The fact that China has for the most part supported the United States as it has pursued its security interests has meant a great deal to President Bush and the administration. It is really what has driven the bilateral relationship.

By 9/11, you mean the Chinese helped track down terrorists?

Yes. When President Bush in effect made his clarion call that you are either with us or against us, President Jiang Zemin did step up to the plate and offer China’s support. In exchange, China wanted support for its own war on terror in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. We came back and said clearly that China’s problems in Tibet and Taiwan are not ones of terrorist activity, but we did agree to support them in their effort to crack down on Muslim extremists in Xinjiang [in northwestern China], although our support is complicated a bit by the fact that the Uighurs [the non-Han Chinese who live there] are not necessarily terrorists but separatists.

Also, 2001 was the year that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference was held in Shanghai. This was supposed to be a banner event for the Chinese, showcasing their economic achievements and driving a regional economic agenda. Yet their entire agenda was usurped by President Bush and his terrorism agenda. The Chinese let that happen. They ceded the stage to President Bush, and that was appreciated by the United States. These few months set the stage for the new relationship. But the real turning point came with the war in Iraq.

Even though China did not support the United States in the war?

China supported the first U.N. Security Council resolution, which warned that Iraq would face serious consequences if it did not comply with U.N. weapons inspections. And, although they didn’t support the U.S. bid to automatically authorize the use of force in the face of Iraqi noncompliance, the Chinese were much quieter than the French or the Russians in their opposition. They let the Bush administration know, well in advance, that they weren’t going to be able to support the United States on this. The Chinese government also didn’t sanction significant domestic protests against the U.S. war in Iraq. The Chinese government put the lid on such opposition very quickly.

China’s current position on discussions in the Security Council seems, from reports in the Chinese media, to be possibly supportive of the United States.

The Chinese, again, appear to be quietly supporting France and Russia, [this time] in their quest for a stronger U.N. role in the reconstruction effort in Iraq. To the extent they can support the United States, they will. However, they also place a lot of importance on international institutions and the United Nations in particular. I think that in the end if they feel they can’t support the United States, they will still try to keep their tone moderate.

And the third element, North Korea?

The Chinese support for peaceful resolution of this conflict is clear; they were largely responsible for bringing both North Korea and the United States to the table.

What explains this willingness to cooperate on all fronts? Economic considerations?

Actually, China’s policy toward the United States has been much more consistent than U.S. policy toward China. China views the United States as essential to its continued stability and modernization. So, over the past decade or so, it has been reluctant to rock the boat— with the exception of some moments with Taiwan. More recently, in exchange for all of its support of the U.S. security agenda, it has received a number of benefits from the United States. [Then-]president Jiang visited Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas [in October 2002]; this was an enormously important moment for China. We also have been much softer on China’s human rights abuses. The administration has, until very recently, refrained from criticizing the Chinese for their continued abuses. Earlier this year, for the first time since 1989, the U.S. government declined to push a resolution condemning China at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. However, this summer, for the first time since President Bush took office, the administration publicly chided China for failing to live up to its implicit promises to improve human rights practices.

Has President Bush met with the new Chinese president, Hu Jintao?

Yes. He met with Hu when Hu was vice president and came to the United States in the spring of 2002. The United States is trying to get Hu to come back this fall. However, Vice President Dick Cheney is supposed to go to China this fall, and the Chinese want to send their equivalent, Wen Jiabao. Nonetheless, the administration is trying to get President Hu to come, apparently by enticing him with a visit to Crawford.

On human rights, is the situation as bad as ever?

The Chinese government recently has given some mixed signals. Overall, however, I have not seen any significant improvement over the past few years.

You mean, no one can speak out against the government or party?

It’s not that there can’t be any criticism. Certainly, criticism of local governments may be permitted and even encouraged at times. Can there be criticism of central government policy? There has been. For example, there was the doctor who spoke out in the midst of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis earlier in the year, and for a few weeks there was a lot of media openness surrounding the issue of SARS. But then the government clamped down again. I think that there is a lot of uncertainty within the government about how it should respond to all of the pressing social pressures and social problems. The media want to investigate and people want to speak out, but the government is not clear as to how it wants to negotiate this desire for greater openness. It’s afraid that if it really opens the door, the whole thing will burst wide open. So, it is trying to find some kind of happy medium.

In the meantime, of course, the more radical dissidents— those who advocate democracy or Tibetan separatism— will still be arrested. Certainly there has been no improvement in dissident policy and no real improvement in religious policy.

What’s the situation with Taiwan? Are the Chinese lining up missiles against Taiwan?

They always have missiles aimed against Taiwan. President Jiang put forth an initiative to withdraw the missiles in exchange for some change in U.S. policy— perhaps a ban on arms sales to Taiwan. But if we are really interested in moving forward on a military dialogue with the Chinese, we need to open the door again, and re-establish a much more free-flowing set of military-to-military contacts. Most importantly, there has been no ratcheting up of a military threat against Taiwan. No one in Beijing is talking about military action against Taiwan. And there is no reason to expect there is going to be any such action.

It seems you can’t pick up anything in the United States, including the most advanced high-tech imports, without seeing a “made in China” label. Is China one of America’s largest trading partners?

China is not our leading trade partner, but we are China’s largest export market. Our trade deficit will exceed $100 billion this year. This is, of course, provoking a lot of the current angst within the United States. In addition, there is the impression that somehow China is a major cause of job loss in the United States, that all the factories are picking up from the Midwest and the South and moving their operations to China.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to the job loss claim, although it is not surprising given China’s supply of cheap labor. More importantly, if China is engaging in unfair trade practices, which undoubtedly it is by subsidizing some of its domestic industries or offering them tax rebates, then these are issues on which we should be pressing the Chinese very hard. Many of the problems that the United States has in its trade relationship with China are shared by other countries, and we should bring a lot of pressure to bear on China via the World Trade Organization (WTO). That is a large part of the reason we wanted to get China in the WTO. On the other hand, it doesn’t do us much good to wring our hands and threaten tariffs. U.S. job losses and trade deficits are going to be part of the picture as long as China has 1.3 billion people, its labor is cheap, and its labor protection, environmental, and health and safety standards are much lower. Of course, the demand for Chinese products by the United States also has something to do with this trade deficit.

What’s the purpose of the September 24 conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace?

The purpose is to take a hard look at the new Chinese leadership, which has been in place for six months now, and to assess what it has done and where it is going. There is not great understanding at this point about what direction the Chinese leadership is taking the country, in terms of the economy, in terms of domestic political issues, and in terms of important social issues. We are also going to explore the current state of relations with the United States and talk about some of the problem areas that are likely to bubble up over the next year. This is a chance to tap into some of the top experts from across the country and from those based in China and to get their sense of what’s going on in China today and what we might expect to see in the future.

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