It has become commonplace to bemoan the state of the United States’ relations with China. But Sino-American relations are set to get worse, not because anyone particularly wants them to, but because there are fundamental problems in the relationship.
In 1996, these sores will be scratched by the U.S. election, the run-up to the presidential election in Taiwan and the increasingly polarized politics of Hong Kong before its transfer to China in 1997. Add to that fierce factional politics surrounding the struggle for post-Deng Xiaoping China. Under these circumstances, it is little use telling the Chinese that they should be reasonable or keep their military from firing missiles at Taiwan or seizing reefs from the Philippines. Nor does it do much good to tell the Taiwanese people that they should muzzle their democracy and not talk about independence. Realists must take the world as they find it.
There is no more important strategic challenge for the 21st Century than how to handle the rise of China. Unless democracies debate such challenges, they cannot hope to formulate a policy that will stick.
The starting point for such a debate must be the clear evidence that China is a rising great power. Its economy has averaged 10% growth for nearly 15 years and its per-capita GNP, measured according to average purchasing power parities, is now the world’s second largest.
But China is, and likely to be for some time, an incomplete superpower. Its growth rate is possible only because power has been decentralized to coastal provinces, individual entrepreneurs and even the children of senior leaders. Not surprisingly, Beijing is losing control of key aspects of its domestic as well as foreign policies. Chinese growth cannot be sustained without major dependence on foreign markets in the developed world, and on food and fuel imports. As the West knows from experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, incomplete powers are both a problem and subject to pressure precisely because they are insecure and incomplete.
It can also be said with little equivocation that the West has an interest in China’s continuing to grow. At the same time, we have an interest in a China that does not challenge the status quo and accepts the constraints of interdependence. Today’s China has the least commitment to the status quo of any important power. It wishes to occupy Taiwan and take territory from most of its neighbors in East Asia. It wishes to join the World Trade Organization, but without being bound by the dispute settlement mechanism or other rules that bind all other members. It wishes to have access to our markets but not to provide access to its own. It wishes to sell dangerous weapons around the world and dangerous technology to the likes of Iran.
Therefore, it is not true that all would be well if only we could stop stumbling on seemingly inconsequential issues such as the visit by the Taiwanese president to Cornell University. In fact, the problem is in many senses bigger than it ever was with the Soviet Union, if only because China has a successful and increasingly global economy. But by failing to debate a strategy toward China, we do ourselves a disservice. One thing we did learn from our relationship with the Soviet Union was that a long and patient strategy that punishes misdemeanor and rewards good behavior is worth pursuing.
While it may not make sense to make trade with China dependent on human rights, it does make sense, as the United States demonstrates in its relationship with Japan, to link trade with trade. A tough line on entry into the WTO is in everyone’s interest, as is firmness in bilateral trade talks. And if agreements with leaders in Beijing on trade do not stick because the real economic power has been decentralized to coastal provinces, then the West needs a more sophisticated policy that also deals with coastal China.
In the security sphere, it is preemptive fatalism to argue that the United States should not punish China for selling weapons or technology to states the West considers unstable or destabilizing. If we offer carrots to Russia not to sell arms or technology to the likes of Iran, then why not do the same to China, and be prepared to impose sanctions if they do not cooperate? It certainly makes sense to target humanitarian and social aid to China in a way that meets concerns about Chinese human rights violations and the lack of civil society. It is the presidents of large companies, not just human rights groups, that want us to help China develop a better legal system.
None of these strategies are easy to pursue. Tying China into the international system has elements of both “containment” and “engagement,” and it is not worth feigning that we cannot use either term in our debates. Let us take the next year or so, while the United States has an election and China sorts out its leadership, to have a serious debate about our interests in China, and how we best tie it into the international system.