The Magazine


Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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Chinese premier Zhu Rongji's visit to America was not supposed to end this way. Leading up to the summit on April 7-9, administration aides had proudly announced that trade negotiators had agreed to double the air traffic between China and the United States. But in the end, that modest step -- along with a couple of one-liners from Zhu about stamping warheads "made in China" to avoid misunderstandings about nuclear espionage -- was about all the Clinton administration had to show for its policy of constructive engagement with China.

Premier Zhu left hastily, without the biggest prize: entry for China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). This would have opened Chinese markets to more American goods, but on terms allowing China to minimize competition from American companies.

The WTO deal collapsed because China was unwilling to make enough concessions to satisfy Congress. Administration officials privately estimated that they had secured 95 percent of what they needed to make the deal fly. Some even worried that Zhu had promised more than he could deliver, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing in China. But the White House realized that after months of news about Chinese espionage in U.S. weapons labs, Beijing's crackdown on democracy activists, and illegal Chinese contributions to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, even 95 percent of a loaf was not enough. The whole loaf would be needed to get the protectionist big-labor wing of the Democratic party -- not to mention the growing chorus of China hawks in the Republican party -- to swallow an agreement with Beijing.

Exhausted trade negotiators blamed the Kosovo crisis for distracting the White House during the crucial endgame, when the president should have thrown his prestige behind the effort. For his part, the president, in a belated effort to mobilize public support for the deal, blamed China-bashers for exploiting the various spy, campaign-finance, and other controversies to usher in a new Cold War. No one at the White House apparently thought to blame China for the espionage, campaign meddling, and domestic repression that have provided grist for the "China-bashing" mill.

In any case, the real reason the WTO deal collapsed lies elsewhere. The WTO deal came to nothing because the administration's China policy as a whole has failed, and failed in such a way that it is almost impossible for the administration to confront the Chinese on any serious matter. Because the administration had been weak on China for the preceding six years, it had to get "tough" on the country's bid to join the WTO.

As for why constructive engagement has failed, begin with the fact that it is logically incoherent. Even the most atavistic cold warriors in Congress and elsewhere could not have killed it had the policy been sound and beneficial to the country. And even the most attentive president could not have saved a policy so flawed. Indeed, until the administration addresses the internal contradictions of constructive engagement, it is dooming U.S.-Chinese relations for the next century and paving the way for a crisis so grave that the next administration will long for the comparative triviality of the Balkans.

The Clinton administration's constructive engagement with China rests on a simple claim: If we treat the Chinese as an enemy, we will certainly turn them into an enemy, but if we treat them as a friend, we may possibly make them a friend. The near-term costs -- downplaying China's challenges to our interests and overlooking its irregularities in honoring its commitments -- are justified by the potentially high payoff from a friendship.

It sounds good, and sophisticated exponents like Harvard's Joseph Nye are careful to qualify the idea so as to reinforce its plausibility. But when translated into practice by the bumbling Clinton administration, constructive engagement turns out to be rife with contradictions. With the exception of a few Asia watchers in the Defense Department, where the policy originated and its limits are best understood, the Clinton administration has proved extraordinarily inept in implementing it. Far from acknowledging and compensating for the inherent limitations of their policy, our leaders seem to have been seduced by their own propaganda.

There are at least two fundamental weaknesses in the Clinton administration's China policy as currently practiced. First, constructive engagement grossly overstates U.S. Influence on Chinese behavior, perceptions, interests, and domestic politics. This is ironic, for the Clinton administration defends its policy as a less ambitious alternative to the hard-line options of containment and confrontation. But the truth is, constructive engagement is much the most ambitious course.