Bush China Policy Defaults to Engagement

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Groundhog Day? Not quite. But there is something awfully familiar about Secretary of State Colin Powell's upbeat assessment of the U.S.-China relationship following his weekend visit to Beijing. It appears to suggest that the Bush administration will pursue the same basic China policy as the Clinton administration did — which was, of course, essentially the same policy as the one pursued by Papa Bush.

China is a friend of the U.S., Powell insisted. Not a competitor. The countries may have differences, but they also have an overriding interest in working together to improve their relationship. That's familiar talk to anyone following China policy, even if it is a shift in tone for the Bush administration. Campaigning last fall, Bush pegged China as a strategic competitor. Earlier this year, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested it was time for the military to orient its strategic thinking toward the objective of containing Chinese regional ambitions in Asia. Bush also broke a taboo by vowing to "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan against an attack from the mainland — although that may have been a rhetorical slip, given his hurried efforts immediately afterwards to reassure Beijing and worried U.S. allies that there had been no departure from Washington's longstanding "One China" policy.

Still, to hear Powell praising the "gifted" Chinese leadership and stressing cooperation with Beijing might well have caused something of a disconnect for many Americans more accustomed to hearing the Bush team describe China in more menacing tones. That may have been the political purpose of Secretary Powell's joint press conference in Australia with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the administration's arch China hawk. It looked like a self-conscious show of unity to signal conservative Republicans back home that making nice with China was administration policy, not just the Secretary of State's.

Hawks and doves

Rumsfeld, of course, still declined to refer to China as a "friend," preferring "communist dictatorship" instead. His differences with Powell are palpable, and yet they're always going to be settled by consensus. The balance may shift periodically, but within the limits defined by a long-term relationship in which both sides have an overriding self-interest.

It was mutual self-interest that brought Washington and Beijing together back in 1972. The Nixon administration engaged with China not because it believed this would make China a more open society or economy, but because it would outflank their mutual enemy in Moscow. Later, as the crypto-capitalist Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao Zedong and began opening China's markets to the West, the relationship morphed from an alliance of convenience against a mutual foe into a partnership based on trade and investment.

Engaging China is a bipartisan article of faith

China is America's fourth-largest trading partner, and its linkages with the U.S. economy run deep, from manufacturing American sneakers to launching American satellites. That business connection anchors U.S.-China relations. The corporate interests that fund both political parties in the U.S. strongly discourage any jeopardizing of business with China for ideological or political reasons — maintaining the relationship has become an article of bipartisan faith in Washington right up there with a balanced budget. In Beijing, the reformists have created an equivalent consensus around the fact that China's modernization depends on dramatically expanding foreign trade and investment, which requires a good relationship with the West. And that serves to temper the more hawkish instincts of the hard-liners.

Of course China's reformists have the harder time of it. The corollary of modernization and reform, in Beijing's consensus, is maintaining order and stability under the centralized control of the Communist Party. But the deeper the scale and pace of reforms, the more potentially volatile their society becomes. To comply with World Trade Organization rules, for example, China will have to open its doors to competition that will leave millions of its citizens jobless in a fast-changing society. So the hard-liners have plenty of material to work with, even as the reformists have to keep the door open to the West. It's that duality that accounts, for example, for the bizarre "catch-and-release" policy towards U.S.-based academics on view before Powell's visit. The hard-liners push for their arrest; the moderates win their early release to please the West.

Democracy not a deal-breaker

Washington will certainly continue to push China toward democracy, but this won't be a deal-breaker with Beijing. The stakes are simply too high. Instead, the long-term policy has been to press China to ease up on its human rights abuses, and become a more responsible global citizen — both in its application of trade rules, and particularly in such sensitive areas as missile proliferation.

The immediate concern in China policy over the next 18 months will be the succession of President Jiang Zemin. His imminent retirement has set off a fierce power struggle between reformists and hard-liners to succeed him at the helm of a communist party — whose binding ideology today is nationalism rather than socialism — bracing for a careening ride down the rapids of globalization. The U.S. posture on China may have a critical impact on that struggle.

Adjusting the tone

Hardliners have been buoyed in recent years by a series of U.S. actions that have been interpreted by many ordinary Chinese as signs of hostility from Washington. Even before the Bush administration's tough talk, weapons sales to Taiwan and the spy-plane standoff, there was the Clinton administration's backing down on a WTO deal amid the nuclear espionage brouhaha early in 1999, and the accidental bombing of China's Belgrade embassy that same year. The perception of hostility from the Bush administration was always going to do more to help Beijing's hardliners than to ensure a more moderate course.

Now, the Bushies are softening their tone. But the smiling face the Bush administration is now showing Beijing shouldn't be mistaken for a policy shift; it's simply a change in tone. Because, in fact, the tough talk of the early months wasn't actually a policy — it was simply a posture. The basic areas of conflict between China and the U.S. remain. But so does the basic mutual self-interest that binds them together.