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Bush Can Break the Free Fall in U.S.-China Relations

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
December 5, 2003
International Herald Tribune

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When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China arrives in Washington on Tuesday, President George W. Bush will have an opportunity to tout one of his genuine foreign policy successes: the establishment of a strategic partnership with China that has yielded real benefits to the United States.

China has cooperated on the U.S.-led war on terror, facilitated U.S. policy on Iraq within the United Nations and brokered a first round of multiparty negotiations on the North Korean nuclear crisis. China has also been working hard to ensure that Wen's visit goes well, promising several billion dollars' worth of purchase orders for American goods and releasing several prominent political dissidents during the past week.

Yet these goodwill gestures may not be enough. White House critics say that the Bush administration's focus on its broader strategic priorities has led it to look the other way as China undermines the U.S. economy with unfair trade and monetary policies, continues to abuse the basic human rights of its own people and ratchets up its warlike rhetoric over Taiwan.

Congress has upped the ante in recent weeks by threatening six tough trade-related bills and issuing a scathing report on China's human rights practices. The White House has tried to mute its critics by putting into place narrower quotas on textiles and televisions, but such measures will not address the broader challenge levied by Congressional and other critics.

To get the relationship back on course, Bush needs to consider how Chinese and U.S. interests can be jointly addressed, as they have been in the strategic arena. The answer rests in China's own desire to play a larger role on the international stage. Over the past year or two, China's leaders have been working assiduously to enhance the country's image and leadership role, setting in motion a diplomatic offensive that has disarmed many who want to be assured of China's peaceful intentions and alarmed some who view China as a threat to U.S. influence and authority.

Rather than succumb to a debate over intentions and implications, however, Bush should make clear to Wen that China's aspirations for international leadership will be realized only when it can confront its skeptics openly and commit fully to global norms, such as protection of human rights, fair and open trade, and a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan situation. A China that meets such goals will have earned the right to lead others.

In practical terms, the United States should use Wen's visit to press China strongly - and publicly if necessary - to make progress in fulfilling earlier commitments to protect its citizens' human rights. China still has not ratified the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it has failed to fulfill its pledge to the United States to invite the UN special rapporteur for torture to visit China.

The White House should not accept empty promises in exchange for action. It should actively engage the European Union and sympathetic Asian nations to underscore the importance of human rights protection for China's international image, and if necessary return to sponsoring a resolution censuring China at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Bush should also call upon China to live up to its emerging reputation as a global free trade leader. China has received kudos for its aggressive advocacy of a free trade area with its Southeast Asian neighbors, but Beijing's spotty record on implementing World Trade Organization rules belies its apparent commitment to provide an equal playing field.

A recent U.S.-China Business Council survey reports some important progress in market access since China joined the WTO, but the American companies surveyed cited government protectionism as the leading obstacle to free trade.

No issue poses a greater risk to China's aspirations for a global leadership role than the conflict over Taiwan. Over the past few weeks, tensions between China and Taiwan have risen sharply.

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan pledged to rewrite the Constitution and pursued referendum legislation that might yet enable a future vote on Taiwan independence. China responded with threatening rhetoric. "Independence stance may trigger war," ran a recent headline in its English-language newspaper, The China Daily.

Bush should emphasize the danger to China if it were to launch an unprovoked attack on Taiwan. Not only would the U.S. military be likely to intervene but China's political standing would also plummet. The economic impact would be severe: International assistance to China would dry up and multinationals would look elsewhere for business.

Bush should underscore to Wen that China's international standing would be far better served, for example, by opening the door to observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, particularly in the wake of the SARS crisis.

Bush must also send a clear message to Chen Shui-bian that the United States does not support unnecessarily provocative steps by Taiwan, and he should prevent provocations by his own Taiwan foreign policy team. Remarks by a senior U.S. official to the effect that Taiwan should consider Bush its "guardian angel" only complicate an already difficult situation.

While Bush plays to China's aspirations for global leadership, he must also reassert his own commitment to adhering to international norms. Flagrantly violating WTO obligations by levying tariffs on steel imports stands the administration in poor stead as Bush presses China to improve its market access. Similarly, it is difficult to question China's approach to terrorism and its treatment of its Muslim population when the United States denies hundreds of its own citizens and residents their basic political rights in the name of the same threat. While the scale of abuse in China and that in the United States - both in trade and in human rights - may not be equal, world leadership demands adherence to a higher standard.

The White House has put substance behind decades of claims to shared American and Chinese interests in global peace and security. Yet the benefits of the progress - for both countries, and for the world - will be jeopardized if Washington and Beijing do not embrace all the responsibilities that come with the aspiration for world leadership. The pre-eminence of the United States and the rise of China can both be accommodated as long as there are shared norms of behavior on human rights, trade and security.


The writer is director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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