The Blog


11:00 PM, Feb 23, 1997 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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IN RECENT MONTHS, THE CHINESE government has handed down harsh prison terms to political dissidents. It has made clear its intention to curtail civil liberties when it takes control of Hong Kong in July. It has redoubled its efforts to restrict the flow of information reaching Chinese citizens over the Internet. It has reasserted and, in certain respects, extended its claims to oceans, islands, and resources in the South China Sea. It has been found diverting precision machine tools obtained through a commercial deal with a major U.S. aerospace firm from civilian to military purposes. And it has continued the modernization of its armed forces, especially its air and naval power-projection capabilities. Just over a year ago, Beijing orchestrated massive military exercises aimed at influencing the outcome of Taiwan's first democratic presidential election. This campaign of intimidation culminated with the launching of several salvos of ballistic missiles into the waters off Taiwan's two largest ports. According to published accounts, Chinese officials also took the occasion to remind their American counterparts that, in the end, Americans "care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taipei." The import of these remarks seems clear enough: If it goes too far in defending Taiwan, the United States risks nuclear war with the mainland.

These events have led not to a searching debate but to an almost ritualistic reaffirmation of the current U.S. policy of "engagement" with China. Seemingly shaken by last spring's Taiwan Straits crisis, top American officials, including the president and his new secretary of state, have forsworn any intention to confront or "contain" China, proclaiming instead their renewed desire to engage Beijing in trade, bilateral diplomacy, and multilateral institutions. Nor is this a controversial stance. The last few months have also seen a steady stream of reports by prestigious bipartisan study groups and articles by respected China scholars and officials in past Republican administrations urging a similar course and warning of the dangers of deviation. The consensus on this issue is solid, even stifling.

The advocates of engagement fall into two distinct camps: those who hope to transform China and those who say that they seek simply to tame it. The first group emphasizes the profound benefits of economic engagement. Foreign trade and investment will, they argue, promote Chinese development and unleash irresistible social and political forces. As China grows richer, it will become more democratic, and, as it becomes democratic, its foreign and military policies will grow less assertive and less troubling to its neighbors.

The second group of engagers is more cautious in its prognostications and, in any case, more circumspect in announcing its intention to undermine the current Chinese regime. China, in this view, does not have to become a democracy in order to be a good global citizen; its leaders merely have to learn to play by the rules. The proximate goal of U.S. strategy should therefore be to teach China's leaders the benefits of involvement in the full array of international economic and political institutions. The advantages of inclusion and, presumably, the costs of exclusion should be sufficient to induce the Chinese government to moderate its external behavior. If, over time, China becomes more open, more pluralistic, and more respectful of the rights of its citizens, so much the better; but such domestic changes are not essential and they should not be the primary objective of American policy.

"Transformers" and "tamers" differ on the precise ends they seek, but they are agreed on the means: America and its Asian allies may have to nudge China every once in a while to keep it on track, but they should do so discreetly, behind closed doors, and not through public denunciations, the imposition of economic sanctions, or, least of all, heightened military preparations or the formation of anything remotely resembling an anti-Chinese alliance. Such steps would have disastrous, self-defeating consequences. The thing to do is to trade, talk, "engage," and let history run its course.

This is a pleasing story. But is it plausible?

The alleged incompatibility of capitalism and authoritarianism is an article of faith among the transformers and, in the long run, they may be right. To date, however, China's Communist leaders have proven themselves quite adept at promoting market-driven economic growth while at the same time suppressing political dissent.