The message was on my phone machine when I returned from a trip a few weeks ago. A reporter's voice reminded me that as President Clinton's national security advisor, I had been in the People's Republic of China in the summer of 1996, meeting with senior Chinese officials--including Gen. Liu Huaqing. Did I know that at the same time, the general's daughter, a Chinese aerospace executive, was giving campaign contributions to Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung?
As I stood listening to the message, I found myself smiling at the implication: "Coincidence? I don't think so."
In all our many meetings on policy toward China, I never heard the president or his senior advisors mention campaign contributions. I had never heard of the general's daughter. The reporter's question was absurd. Laughable.
But I quickly stopped smiling. Absurd, yes. Funny, no.
Are allegations that national security decisions were influenced by campaign contributions always to be taken seriously? Yes.
Should they be investigated? Absolutely.
Does that mean that while such an investigation is taking place the president should cancel or alter his trip to China? Absolutely not.
Hysterical cries that he shouldn't go lack all sense of proportion. While pursuing the issue here at home--including the implications for campaign-finance reform--we should take a collective deep breath, step back, look at the president's trip in strategic terms and draw a very different conclusion. Summit meetings with both Chinese and Russian leaders should be held on a regular basis, not subject to the vagaries of domestic politics in any of our capitals.
Good relations with Beijing are not the issue. The strategic dialogue is not about our popularity with each other. It is about behavior. We can best influence Chinese behavior by talking to them--about areas in which we agree and areas we don't--while using our leverage in sensible ways.
The stakes are huge. China's future economic, political and military strength is well understood. But consider the impact its current policies are having on issues that directly affect our interests. Its decisions on the value of its currency will help determine the future course of the Asian financial crisis. Its stance on the South Asian nuclear crisis is crucial. Its continuing cooperation on North Korea is vital as we address one of the world's most dangerous situations.
Can the strategic dialogue solve all our differences? Of course not. As China wrestles with a fundamental economic restructuring and the political change that must come with it, we will continue to have evident, systemic differences: for example, on trade issues and on the meaning and importance of human freedom. Indeed, on the meaning of history.
This makes it all the more important that the president find a way to reach out to the dissidents in Beijing and the democrats in Hong Kong, while making sure to reassure the leaders of Taiwan of the importance of our ties there.
But look also at recent progress on the protection of intellectual property rights, on Chinese adherence to various arms control regimes, on their agreement to not provide Iran with any new assistance for its nuclear programs and no more anti-ship cruise missiles, on the agreement that we can open a Drug Enforcement Administration office in Beijing. And moved probably both by the intelligent approach of the leaders on Taiwan and by the memory of the U.S. aircraft carriers dispatched to the region during the crisis of 1996, Beijing has resumed cross-strait counterpart contacts. Tensions with Taiwan are less threatening than at any point in the past three years.
Both our fundamental differences and the possibility of further progress argue strongly not only for holding this summit, but for making such summits a permanent, regular part of the landscape. The same holds true for summits with the leader of Russia.
Regularly scheduled summits would not be seen as diplomatic "seals of good housekeeping." They would not be subject to political posturing here and would strengthen moderate, pro-Western officials in Moscow and Beijing. Their regular nature would check the temptation on either side to link scheduling the meeting to specific issues, a tactic that rarely works.
Such summits should not be celebrations of "good relations," much less of "partnerships." They should not be surrounded by unwarranted, optimistic rhetoric or spin. Serious, regular, working summits can force our respective leaders, bureaucracies and political systems to come to grips with the serious issues before us. Only such summits can take us beyond short-term political headlines to the full, sustained engagement that our strategic interests require.