Sino-American relations are in trouble. A succession of developments culminating in the Clinton Administration's granting of a visa to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, who arrived in the United States Wednesday, has imperiled political ties. Leaders in both Washington and Beijing seem unable or unwilling to slow, let alone prevent, the steady deterioration. With the vagaries of an American presidential campaign and the Chinese succession struggle looming, the near-term forecast for U.S.-China relations is clouded and potentially very stormy.
Neither country, however, is behaving as if much is at risk. In Washington, there is no senior official responsible for China policy. Despite various efforts since late 1993 to achieve consensus on a policy of engagement with Beijing, the Clinton Administration has repeatedly veered in different directions. A spate of recent congressional resolutions aimed at undermining working relations with China have placed the Administration on the defensive.
This lack of policy coherence and control has stoked the characteristic fears and suspicions of officials in Beijing. Ever sensitive to the presumed hidden meaning of disparate and disconnected events, many Chinese see a grand anti-China design underlying American actions, even if there is no such intent.
The contrast between the extension of a visa to Lee--by itself a welcome and overdue development--and the lack of any meaningful overtures toward Chinese President Jiang Zemin only confirms these suspicions. Though Jiang visited Seattle for the Asian Pacific economic summit in late 1993, he has yet to be invited to Washington. President Clinton has repeatedly turned aside Chinese urgings for a public meeting with Jiang, most recently when both attended the V-E Day commemorations in Moscow. Many Chinese, including those not particularly enamored of Jiang, view such U.S. actions as a conscious slight to their country, and part of an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the succession to Deng Xiaoping.
The Administration may balk at appearing to endorse Jiang's succession to Deng, but his primacy within the leadership is increasingly evident. Short of a major crisis that Jiang badly mishandles, it seems unlikely that he will be subject to a near-term challenge by a presumptive rival.
Although Jiang does not seem well disposed toward the United States, he is the leader with whom Washington must deal. To consolidate his authority over the Chinese system, he has curried favor with more conservative officials in Beijing, many of whom hold sharply negative views of the United States. The Clinton Administration's continued rejection of Jiang's overtures reinforces his commitment to a more nationalistic foreign policy and further strengthens his dependence on more hard-line forces. As a consequence, the voices within China counseling restraint toward the United States are on the defensive.
The most immediate damage to bilateral ties has been felt in the U.S.-China defense relationship. After a prolonged post-Tian An Men hiatus, Secretary of Defense William Perry had painstakingly rebuilt ties between the U.S. and Chinese military establishments, again elevating the security relationship to a pivotal policy position. But in the immediate aftermath of the State Department's decision to issue Lee a visa, the Chinese air force commander, Lt. Gen. Yu Zhenwu, cut short his visit to the United States. A long-anticipated June visit by Defense Minister Chi Haotian, a close ally of Jiang and arguably the most important official in the post-Deng military hierarchy, also has been scrubbed, further jeopardizing Sino-American relations in an area essential to stable major-power ties in the Pacific.
Thus the United States will find it increasingly difficult to sustain a defense dialogue at a time when regional tensions from Korea to the South China Sea are again on the rise and when global security issues such as nuclear proliferation and controlling the spread of missile technology cannot be addressed without meaningful Chinese participation.
Some American officials evidently believe that time and political opportunity ultimately will yield a more pliant Chinese leadership. At the same time, some Chinese officials seem to have concluded that President Clinton's political liabilities are so acute that Beijing can afford to await his successor. Both views are shortsighted and self-defeating, and needlessly contribute to the growing estrangement in Sino-American political relations.
The United States should take steps to reverse the chill becomes a deep freeze.