U.S. Relations with Beijing Hit the Wall

Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Tuesdays

With the New Year, a serious crisis may be brewing in China-U.S. relations. The issue is the Clinton administration’s policy of engagement with China, which absolutely is in the national interest. But the looming issue is whether engagement has allowed China to hoodwink America--and whether the engagement should be called off.

Perhaps as soon as this week, the White House is to receive from the House of Representatives an explosive report that will allege two decades’ worth of efforts by Beijing to acquire militarily potent U.S. missile and nuclear technology. The questions raised--whether such technology was illegally transferred or unknowingly handed over by U.S. companies, or whether Beijing is guilty of outright military-security theft--go to the core of U.S. security concerns.

When the president’s review of the report is completed, Bill Clinton must be clear about whether China, which denies all charges, has been playing an espionage game while pulling the wool over our eyes with an international P.R. campaign. For although China poses no great nuclear threat to U.S. territory, it has been unwilling to forswear the use of force against Taiwan and has a less than stellar record of technology transfer to regimes like Iran’s.

Despite the gravity of the charges, the outcome of the probe is likely to be determined by politics. For the Republican majority in Congress, China offers an inviting target, especially with its recent crackdown on people attempting to organize a formal opposition to the ruling elite. Worse yet, the Republican Party’s core support includes the religious right and evangelical churches that are ideologically opposed to China on many grounds--especially and profoundly Beijing’s state policy of abortion for population control.


The political shroud around this issue makes it harder but no less vital that this congressional effort, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), help America make sense of the thorniest dilemma of U.S.-China policy: How can America and the West help China develop technologically, without also helping it develop militarily? After all, a missile that puts a satellite communications device in the sky is essentially the same deal that can blast anything into the sky, including thermonuclear bombs. If helping China with technology for peaceful aims inevitably runs the risk of helping it with ambitions more ominous, should America stop virtually all technology transfer? That would be a serious over-reaction. If the end result of the looming congressional report is a restrictive, take-no-chances-whatsoever policy, then a serious crisis will develop in relations between Beijing and Washington. The premise of any China engagement policy is that isolating Beijing is a solution worse than the problem, because only an economically secure and stable China is a good neighbor for the rest of Asia. The West also benefits from helping China emerge from the dark nightmare of the Mao era’s failed economic policies. This includes technology help.

But there is probably no way to help move China in this direction that is risk-free. The key goal of any China policy, then, should be risk management: How can the U.S. cooperate with China bilaterally, without allowing Beijing a strategic advantage at the expense of the U.S.? It is the job of any president to answer that question satisfactorily. And it is Congress’ job to make sure that the China question doesn’t become a political punching bag. It is to the credit of the Republican leadership on the Hill that this probe has been handed to elected officials like Cox and Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Asia. These are the GOP’s serious players, and this is a serious issue for America. Cox and Bereuter need to help America develop a policy that encourages Washington and Beijing to develop, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, a joint policy to reduce national-security risks. What past Chinese policies or practices--whether open export encouragement or clandestine espionage--is Beijing prepared to drop? What Chinese practices or policies are within China’s legitimate national security interests that the U.S. should be prepared to accommodate? This kind of nuanced and vital discussion has no hope of success if, in Beijing, the anti-American hawks become ascendant again, as the recent crackdown on dissidents might suggest. Nor can much good come from the U.S. if this issue is steeped in the already vile atmosphere of impeachment and made even more rancorous by the approaching presidential campaign. A sensible bilateral understanding is in the mutual interest of America and China as sovereign states and as responsible contributors to regional peace and stability. As of now, this is not likely to occur. As good as they are, Cox and Bereuter are, after all, only mortals.