After weeks of being attacked by Congressional Republicans tot everything from engaging in “high treason” on behalf of China to planning to appear at Tiananmen Square, President Clinton finally defended himself in a speech before the National Geographic Society. “Choosing isolation” of China “over engagement” of it, the president said, “would make [the world] more dangerous.” Yet this caricatures the choices facing the United States. Both the hyperbole of the critics and Clinton’s simplistic distinction between engagement and isolation suggest the extent to which the American debate over China policy has become removed from reality.
On one side are the hawks. These include Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a writer for The Weekly Standard (and, occasionally, for TNR), and Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro, authors of The Coming Conflict With China. In China, the hawks detect a budding global menace. Bernstein and Munro even see a new cold war in the offing: “Even without actual war, China and the United States will be adversaries in the major global rivalry of the first decades of the century,” they write. “Competition between them will force other countries to take sides and will involve all the standard elements of international competition.…”
On the other side stand advocates of a new détente—people like Henry Kissinger—who view human rights considerations as a counterproductive intrusion into the conduct of diplomatic relations with another great power. Other détente advocates, such as Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, believe that capitalism will prove to be the solvent for the Beijing dictatorship. The most extreme version of this view has been propounded by Stanford Professor Henry S. Rowen, who predicted in the Fall 1996 National Interest that China will become a democracy by 2015—around the time its per capita GDP reaches $7,000.
Both sides are wrong. China is not the Soviet Union redux. No one should expect to see China supporting insurgencies in Central America. But this does not imply that it is a country evolving, slowly but inevitably, into a peaceful, tame democracy. On the contrary, China hopes to gain regional hegemony on its side of the Pacific Rim.
Ironically, it is precisely the limited nature of China’s expansionist ambitions that make it slippery for the U.S. to deal with. The Soviet Union, alter all, squandered precious resources in Asia, Central America, and Africa. Had the Soviets confined their ambitions to Europe, they might still be a going concern. Similarly, if China were bent on global expansion, it would probably also suffer “imperial overstretch” and implode.
Where does this leave the United States? Though China is unlikely to collapse trader the weight of its own excessive ambition, the United States is anything but powerless. Even if Chinese ambitions are largely confined to regional hegemony, the United States is in an excellent position to ensure that they are checked.
Consider the economic sphere. True, China is the world’s second-biggest economy—its GDP of 54 trillion is about about half the size of the U.S.’s. China also has the advantage of having just absorbed Hong Kong—along with the former British colony’s $80 billion in reserves. Furthermore, China’s fixed currency is shielded from speculation; most of its foreign debt consists of medium- or long-term loans, which can’t be called in overnight. But already China’s growth rate is slowing down; the predicted rate for 1998, ranging between four and seven percent, is down from ten. Chinese cities are filled with hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers from the countryside who could explode into social unrest at any time. And, since much foreign investment in China has come from Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, China is not insulated from the economic shock waves that have hit the region. Thus tar, the Chinese government’s response has been to announce a massive investment program of $750 billion over the next three years. But Keynesian-style pump-priming could well lead to soaring inflation. In short, there’s no guarantee China can escape the economic woes sweeping Asia.
Yet, instead of recognizing this potential pain, the Clinton administration scents to see only gain. “China boasts a growth rate that has averaged ten percent for the past twenty years,” Clinton said in his National Geographic Society speech. “Over the next twenty years, it is projected that the developing economies will grow at three times the rate of the already-developed economies. It is manifestly, therefore, in our interest to bring the Chinese people more and more fully into the global trading system to get the benefits and share the responsibilities of emerging economic prosperity.”
Although China is running a large trade surplus with the United States—over $50 billion per year—the administration acts as though the potential size of the China market justifies catering to the sensitivities of the Beijing elite.
This appears to have been the thinking that prompted the administration to issue the waivers on sensitive satellite technology to Beijing. The approval a year ago of the controversial request of Loral Space and Communications hardly seems to confirm the Republican charge that the administration cut a deal with the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions. If there is a scandal, it doesn’t involve election payoffs; it’s that, in granting the approval, the Clinton administration had merely been continuing what had, since the Bush administration, become standard U.S. policy of acceding to Beijing’s wishes.
Meanwhile, China continues to upgrade its military. Exploiting peaceful technical assistance from American companies, China has been attempting to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles; Walter Pincus reported in the June 13 Washington Post that American officials see the Chinese use of American satellite technology as a plus because it allows the U.S. to keep tabs on frequencies and orbits. But, by this logic, the U.S. should be supplying all its enemies, potential or real, with dual-use technology. China has also procured 48 advanced Russian SU-27 jet fighters in order to gain domination over the South China Sea—the crucial waterway for the shipment of oil from the Middle East to Japan and Southeast Asia.
Still, China’s efforts at military expansion do not pose a global threat to the U.S. For one thing, China’s ability to project its power in the Pacific region remains anemic. In contrast to the $250 billion the U.S. spends annually on defense, China budgets $35 billion—less even than Japan. Much of China’s equipment dates from the 1950s and 1960s. It has no aircraft carriers. Its warships lack air-defense and anti-submarine capabilities. Its submarines frequently break down. And its air force cannot refuel planes in midair. A penetrating study of China, “Between Friendship and Rivalry,” by Peter W. Rodman of the Nixon Center, concludes that “by almost all serious assessments, the People’s Liberation Army remains decades away front constituting a modern all-around force capable of sustained power projection—especially when matched against the more modern and better-equipped capabilities of its neighbors in the region, let alone the United States.”
Of course, while China may not be the global men ace portrayed by the hawks, it is not toothless either. It has the capacity to undermine U.S. interests. And it frequently does so. For instance, in 1993 China appears to have funneled substantial nuclear know-how to Pakistan—helping to prompt India to carry out nuclear tests. Iraq is also a notable instance of Chinese intransigence toward the United States. Like Russia and France, China used its U.N. Security Council veto to stymie decisive action by the United States against Baghdad in February.
The Clinton administration’s response? It has tried to win over the regime with lucrative economic arrangements—and by downplaying human rights violations (which the administration argues will end once China becomes fully capitalist). But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. China continues to challenge U.S. foreign policy. China may have “announced its intention to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” as Clinton proudly announced in his June 11 speech, and President Jiang Zemin may have “received a delegation of prominent American religions leaders and invited them to visit Tibet.” But these measures are window dressing. Indeed, earlier this year, the State Department’s own report on human rights stated that “all public dissent against the party and government was effectively silenced by intimidation, exile, the imposition of prison terms, administrative detention, or house arrest.”
If the goal is to force China to be more cooperative, instead of “constructive engagement” at the cost of freedom tot China’s people, we should make human rights a priority issue. That’s because human rights is the Chinese regime’s weak spot. Now that the Chinese government has dropped its claim to represent a morally superior version of communism, the only way it can justify its grip on political power is by providing material goods. So the regime has staked its legitimacy on economic prosperity—an inherently unstable arrangement. The vitality of democracies such as the United States rests on the fact that they command a legitimacy apart from economic performance; depressions, even recessions, may cause citizens to question, denounce the political system but not overthrow it. The recent example of Indonesia surely demonstrates the brittleness of those dictatorships that put economic performance ahead of political liberties. In an economic crisis, such governments have no reservoir of legitimacy upon which to draw.
By keeping the spotlight on China’s human rights abuses, the U.S. could help underscore the fragility of the government’s legitimacy. That, in turn, would help keep the Chinese honest on all the other security questions that trouble the relationship. The U.S. has everything to gain by pursuing such a policy. After all, China needs the U.S. far more than the U.S. needs China. That is the lesson President Clinton should recall when he visits the square where the brave students fashioned a replica of the Statue of Liberty in 1989.
This article originally ran in the July 6, 1998 issue of the magazine.