The United States needs a new China policy. For the past quarter-century, America's policy toward China has been guided by a simple notion of engagement: Promoting market reform and integrating China into international institutions will ensure that as China develops, it will become a responsible member of the international community.
By any measure, this approach has succeeded. China participates fully in the World Trade Organization, hosts the six-party talks on the future of North Korea's nuclear program and assists in fighting the war on terror— all with U.S. support. Yet this very success is now enabling China to challenge U.S. leadership in Asia and perhaps beyond, with profound implications.
Over the past four years, China has moved aggressively throughout Asia to structure a regional free trade agreement, push for new multilateral and bilateral regional security arrangements that exclude the United States, and become a significant source of development assistance to the region's poorest members. The United States, in contrast, has seen its approach to Asia criticized as "a policy adrift" and remains without an overarching strategy toward the region.
Certainly there are benefits to China's new activism. China could relieve the United States of some of the burden of leadership in the region— coordinating initiatives on improving health care, fighting drug trafficking or reducing poverty, for example. But the downside is significant. Protecting human rights, advancing political openness and safeguarding Taiwan's security are America's core priorities, not China's.
The next president must reclaim America's leadership role in Asia. This means expanding U.S. policy initiatives beyond the war on terror, reasserting America's position as a pre-eminent force for economic development, strengthening diplomatic efforts in regional forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and advancing good governance in the region's nascent democracies.
As the United States builds on the success of its China policy of the past 25 years, it must come to grips with the challenges engendered by this success. engagement with China must be matched by re-engagement with China's neighbors.