The Magazine


Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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Critics of President Clinton's upcoming China trip point to its bad symbolism -- the welcome at Tiananmen Square above all. Its defenders counter with substance: Important strategic and political gains are at stake, and China is too important to let human-rights symbolism drive the agenda. Or, as Clinton put it in a recent address, "The choice is between making a symbolic point and making a real difference."

Would that it were so simple. The fact is, however, that the fundamental errors of the trip are -- if this is conceivable -- even worse than its symbolism. The whole enterprise reveals a profoundly unrealistic and Sinocentric approach to Asian policy that not only is unlikely to succeed, but also will work to undermine the very goals of peace and cooperation that Clinton touts to justify his visit.

The American relationship with China, so President Clinton believes, "will in large measure help to determine whether the new century is one of security, peace, and prosperity for the American people." That is an appealing claim, and initially not implausible, particularly given the facts of which he carefully reminds us: that China is "already the world's most populous nation," that its people have 13 million mobile phones, and so forth. But such facts -- of which the president's critics are of course well aware -- do not necessarily translate into Clinton's policy of largely uncritical "engagement" of China.

Suppose someone had made a similar argument 20 years ago about the Soviet Union -- and many did. The proper response, I suspect, would have been something like this: Yes, the U.S.S.R. is extremely important, and we should try very hard to lower tensions and increase cooperation. But our leverage is rather limited, and furthermore, real change is unlikely until the state democratizes. We cannot rest our security on the hope of good relations with Moscow. Therefore, the truly crucial relationships for peace in the years ahead will not be with Moscow but rather with our allies -- because if ties with our allies are sound, we can probably keep the peace even if the U.S.S.R. remains a threat. China today requires a similar approach, but Clinton is not taking it. His policy commits two fundamental errors.

First, he overestimates the positive potential of the U.S.-China relationship. To hear him, one might imagine that Beijing and Washington were about to join hands and march into the future, solving the problems of nuclear proliferation, environmental pollution, and drug trafficking along the way. Such raising of expectations is irresponsible and opens the way for later disillusionment and anger. Even if it shared Washington's agenda, which it does not, the Beijing government would be too weak to carry out most of it and furthermore would be preoccupied with domestic problems.

Because cooperation on substance is so difficult, the administration may be tempted to settle for appearances instead. Not only that, it may actually sacrifice substance in order to maintain the appearance (as it has done repeatedly with waivers of sanctions for nuclear and missile proliferation). Or it may seek to purchase the appearance of harmony by making concessions (as it has over Taiwan in response to threats from Beijing). Making good relations with Beijing the primary goal of U.S. Asian policy can make Washington, unwittingly, a hostage of Chinese behavior.

Second, putting China first means putting our allies second, and they notice it. If and when things go wrong in China, we will need strong Asian alliances to prevent instability from spreading. But international structures in Asia are to begin with far weaker than in Europe. Even the crucial Japanese-American security relationship cannot compare to NATO in substance. By tilting to China and bypassing the long-term allies with whom we share both interests and values, the Clinton approach is steadily corroding the very Asian alliances on which our security rests.

Even more, the tilt is already creating new risks. China's diplomatic inflexibility and active military development were among the factors that led India to develop nuclear weapons. Domestic calculations played a part, to be sure, but the decision enjoyed wide support because almost all Indians recognize that China may pose a danger that India will have to face alone. If Washington's tilt toward China continues, we may see Japan or South Korea start thinking along similar lines.