We Can't Afford to Lose China Again

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration

As President Clinton's new team plans foreign policy for his second term, nothing is more important than integrating the rising power of China as a responsible member of the international system. Earlier in this century, the failure of the established powers to manage the rise of Germany and Japan led to the two world wars.

China will double its economic size this decade and become the world's second largest economy early in the next century. Yet we lack a clear strategy.

Since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, there has been a collapse of mutual trust between the United States and China. Because the media give incomplete coverage to it, few Americans have an accurate perception of the complex changes that are occurring in Chinese society, and few Chinese have any understanding of the United States.

Nationalism is far stronger than communism in China, and U.S. actions have stimulated anti-American reactions in broad segments of the Chinese population. In the United States, every foreign policy interest--nuclear nonproliferatists, human rights activists, trade unionists, the Taiwan lobby--presses for punishment of China. Unless the U.S. addresses the rise of Chinese power from a larger strategic perspective, we will face a major foreign policy failure early in the new century.

The costs of a new Cold War in Asia would be enormous. An arms race in the region would raise havoc for the prospects of a balanced budget, not to mention the very real prospects of bloodshed in the case of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Beyond the direct costs would be the loss to the U.S. economy as we failed to participate in one of the world's most dynamic markets. We also would lose the opportunity for cooperation on global issues like limiting weapons of mass destruction, or for working together on energy or global warming.

Some critics say it is impossible to cooperate with China because of its human rights record. If the United States wishes to be serious about human rights in China (and it should be), it must articulate a long-term strategy to advance human rights, not merely react to individual violations. Human rights in a poor country is like a pyramid. The broad base is economic development. As Stapleton Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to China, put it, more Chinese have more freedom today than ever before because of the rapid economic growth.

Economic change is a necessary but insufficient base for the long-term development of human rights. The next step is the development of civil society through support of various nongovernmental organizations. Along with civil society goes support for development of legal systems, courts and local legislatures. At the top of the pyramid--the individual cases--we should adopt tactics suited to particular cases and occasions: sometimes speak up, sometimes speak softly.

China will act in light of its national interest, but we can affect how the Chinese define that interest. For example, President Clinton's reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance last April means that China cannot play Japan and the U.S. against each other. The next step in the strategy is for the U.S. and Japan to constructively engage China. Already China's behavior on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the comprehensive test ban is better than in the past. China should also be included in the World Trade Organization. As China sees its interests in a larger context, the prospects for conflict diminish. Regular summit meetings would help to reinforce the big picture.

Finally, the president must talk seriously to the American public and Congress about the larger questions relating to China. Put simply, we and the Chinese increasingly share the same living space. We need to work together to reach some agreement on "house rules." Without a larger strategic plan, our current ad hoc approach will lead to costly blunders as China's power grows.

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