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Take a New Look at a Changing China

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
April 30, 2002
International Herald Tribune

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The White House will play host this Wednesday to Vice President Hu Jintao, the heir apparent to Jiang Zemin as president of China and secretary-general of the Communist Party. The Bush administration has an opportunity to chart a new course for U.S.-Chinese relations.

China plays a critical role in sustaining peace in the Asia-Pacific area, in supporting the United States in its efforts to root out terrorism, and in maintaining a well-functioning global trading regime. Yet after more than a year in office the administration has yet to articulate a clear vision for its policy, waffling between a "China threat" scenario and a watered down version of a Clinton engagement approach.

This lack of vision has produced a China policy adrift, with no real progress on the full range of issues from human rights to security to the environment. And it has contributed to tensions on the most sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship, Taiwan.

The administration should take a fresh look at what China is and is not.

China is not a 21st century reincarnation of the Soviet Union -- a simple point that continues to elude many senior U.S. officials. China is no longer a totalitarian state. It does not boast a revolutionary or expansionist ideology, does not operate under a command economy, does not seek to control every aspect of people's lives, and does not pose a threat to U.S. leadership in the world.

Instead, China is a far more common and familiar entity -- the endemically corrupt authoritarian state, whose leaders are primarily concerned with maintaining power and stability. While they embrace the diversity of the market, they try to keep the lid on the growing challenge of independent political voices, with less and less success.

China's leaders now routinely discuss the specter of large-scale social instability. They confront widespread economic discontent, increasingly outspoken and aggressive media, a vibrant emerging nongovernmental sector, open village elections that introduce new voices into the formal political process, and independent activists who tackle issues ranging from battered women to battery recycling.

In the security arena, China and America have clear common interests in North Korea, South Asia, terrorism and stability in the Middle East, not to mention border control, the environment and infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

However, as senior U.S. military personnel in the region have repeatedly argued, they need to be able to talk with their Chinese counterparts. This requires President George W. Bush to re-establish the military-to-military contacts that he suspended in the wake of the EP-3 spy plane incident last February. Many military experts believe that there is room for agreement on the full range of security issues.

Removing China as a stand-in for the former Soviet Union also has significant implications for U.S. policy toward Taiwan, which has been hijacked by those intent on defining China as an enemy.

Early in his tenure, President Bush made clear his intention to develop closer ties with Taiwan. Officials have pushed for much closer integration between the two militaries, supported Taiwan's membership in the World Health Organization and met with several top Taiwanese officials.

Visits from Taiwanese officials to the United States and WHO membership make sense, and if paced appropriately would likely not cause much of a ripple in the U.S. relationship with China. However, the administration has operated as though crisis in the Taiwan Strait were imminent, and aggressive moves to raise the stakes in the military relationship with Taiwan have raised tensions with the mainland.

It appears that the administration has ignored the changing dynamics in the cross-strait relationship. Tensions may well diminish in the next several years. Top officials from Taiwan and the mainland visiting the United States have conveyed the same thought: Growing trade and investment, along with increasing personal travel and ties, are enhancing the likelihood of some form of peaceful unification.

In light of such trends, U.S. intervention is divisive, provocative and unnecessary.

Finally, recognizing the transition of China from a Soviet-model totalitarian state to an authoritarian polity offers a singular opportunity to reclaim America's leadership role in advancing the rule of law and peaceful social change in Asia, a role that it played to great effect in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Bush does not need to move mountains to make a difference, but merely use the many tools at his disposal to speed the course of change. For a start, he should work with Congress to reinstate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S.-Asia Environmental Partnership, which have been barred from China for more than a decade; ensure that the State Department's human rights, democracy and rule of law program is finally implemented; and perhaps even introduce the U.S. Agency for International Development to China. These agencies and programs support key U.S. interests in continued economic and political reform in China, while establishing a much stronger U.S. presence there.

There are some in the administration who recognize the potential for a longer-term China policy, rooted in the realities of the day and not the rhetoric of the past. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick delivered an eloquent speech in Beijing early this month that described a century of political, economic and social change in China and called for strengthening the Chinese-American relationship.

Implicit in his remarks is clear recognition of the importance of the moment.


The writer, director of Asia studies and senior fellow for China at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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