What Do We Want From Beijing?

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Nixon shakes hands with Mao on historic trip, 1972.

Most serious players in Washington agree the U.S. should stay engaged with China. It's what exactly America wants out of that relationship that's far from clear. "U.S. foreign policy has been chaotic and has failed to define its priorities in relation to China," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. And that's left the relationship in a state of confusion, with geopolitical and commercial impulses often competing.

Turning China into a massive capitalist market may have seemed like an end in itself during the Cold War; today it also means empowering Washington's greatest economic and political competitor of the next century.

A half- century after the "Who lost China?" question spurred the first wave of McCarthyism, Washington hasn't yet found a comfortable posture toward Beijing. And once President Nixon, who had first made his name as a fiery anticommunist in the House Unamerican Activities Committee, signed an accord with Beijing in 1972, engagement with China has been the policy of successive U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

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