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A New China Approach

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated April 13, 2007

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Washington’s decision to eschew soft diplomacy with China for a more assertive stance on economic relations appeared to threaten U.S.-Chinese relations. On April 9, the United States sued China (NPR) in the World Trade Organization (WTO) court over Beijing’s failure to address intellectual property rights and open its market to American DVDs, books, and movies. China’s Ministry of Commerce responded, saying the U.S. complaints would “seriously damage” (FT) bilateral ties.

Only a week earlier, the U.S. Commerce Department applied duties on coated paper from China, reversing a twenty-three-year-old policy of not placing duties on countries that don’t have market economies. China surpassed the United States as the world's second largest exporter in the latter half of 2006, according to a new WTO report. Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley’s chief New York economist, says U.S. trade sanctions against China appear inevitable by the end of 2007. “Support is deep and bipartisan,” says Roach. “After years of talk and bluster, protectionism no longer seems like an empty threat.”

Amid these heightening tensions, a new CFR Task Force report on Sino-American relations advocates continuing the trajectory of engagement set by Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and calls for an “affirmative agenda.” Building on Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s 2005 concept of China as a “responsible stakeholder,” the report recommends incorporating Beijing into the global system: “Integration is a responsible course involving a blend of engaging China on issues of mutual concern, weaving China into the fabric of international regimes on security, trade, and human rights, and balancing China’s growing military power.”

As a new CFR.org interactive timeline explores, relations between Beijing and Washington have gone through periods of deep tension since the rise of Chinese communism in 1949, even after Nixon’s visit. Carla A. Hills, co-chair of the U.S.-China Task Force, warns against the latest round of U.S. anxieties over engagement with the rising Asian power in a new interview. “We have political resistance here at home that emanates from worries about China’s rapid growth in the last two decades,” says Hills. She proposes establishing “habits of cooperation” to avoid the trap of mutual distrust, particularly regarding China’s efforts to rapidly modernize its military.

In a recent Online Debate, East Asia specialists Richard Halloran and John J. Tkacik Jr. discuss China’s military might, as well as U.S. policy toward Beijing. Halloran, a longtime military reporter for the New York Times, says the United States needs “not so much a change in policy as the forging of a policy” toward China. Tkacik, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, goes a step further, saying Washington’s focus on Iraq “means there’s no thought given to what kind of an Asia we want to see in the twenty-first century.” As a result, he says, “we have no roadmap for achieving it.” A new Backgrounder examines Washington’s policy toward Asia under the Bush administration, concerns over America’s lost prestige in the region, and approaches to recouping U.S. standing there.

A recent Congressional Research Service report explores the divergent views held by U.S. officials on how to approach China policy.

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