The Magazine

The Seinfeld Summit

What didn't happen when Bush met Hu.

May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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THE SINO-AMERICAN AGENDA includes the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, trade, energy, simmering disputes over Taiwan and Japan, and democracy. Why, then, was the most newsworthy event of the Bush-Hu summit last week the protests of a Falun Gong member on the White House lawn?

Because the Bush administration finds it difficult to reach agreement with a Chinese government that poses an age old dilemma of statecraft: How to respond to a rising power whose intentions are uncertain? History teaches that more often than not rising powers define their interests quite differently from existing powers, and China is proving no exception.

The Clinton administration's answer was a policy of "comprehensive engagement," the primary purpose of which was to secure China's acceptance of the American-led international system. The policy was also guided by a belief that economic growth, bolstered by international trade, would lead Beijing toward political freedom. At the same time, the Clinton administration responded to Beijing's muscle flexing, especially after China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, by beginning the process of upgrading defense ties with Japan, and reopening closed doors to Taiwan.

A decade later China has been comprehensively engaged--Washington granted China permanent normal trade relations status, which helped ease Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. It is now one of the United States' largest trading partners, and its rapid economic growth has made it a player on the world stage. But Beijing remains stubbornly authoritarian and has shown little interest in political liberalization.

In the meantime, China has also become a military challenge--the country that has "the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States," in the words of the Pentagon's latest Quadrennial Defense Review. China is employing what it terms its "comprehensive national power" to gradually replace America as Asia's preeminent power. In addition, Beijing has used its new international prominence to provide diplomatic succor to such international menaces as Iran, Venezuela, and Sudan.

How is the Bush administration responding? With an ever so slight policy adjustment. The administration now openly talks of a "hedging strategy." The new National Security Strategy states: "Our strategy seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities."

That is not to say engagement has been abandoned. In a major speech last September, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick articulated a continued, albeit more muscular, policy of engagement: America will now hold China accountable for irresponsible international behavior.

Senior administration officials were quick to elaborate on what they meant by "hedging." In testimony before a congressional commission, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman explained: "Absent greater openness, international reactions to China's military growth will understandably hedge against these unknowns." At a trilateral strategic dialogue with Japan and Australia in March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "I think all of us have a responsibility and an obligation to try and ensure that the rise of China is peaceful and does not lead to negative outcomes."

When an authoritarian country with an opaque defense budget is building up its military capability at a fast pace, it is prudent to hedge your bets. While we are told one thing by the Chinese--all they seek is a peaceful environment to promote their growth and development--we see something else, a more activist China.

In the past decade, China has introduced military capabilities into the region that have already changed the balance of power. As Rodman put it, "When you go from zero to 700 missiles in the Strait in a decade, that changes the status quo."

China now poses what military planners call the greatest "anti-access" and "area denial" challenge to U.S. forces in the Pacific. Beijing has introduced ballistic and cruise missiles, information warfare capabilities, a fleet of diesel electric submarines, advanced destroyers, and air defenses that make it more difficult for the United States to meet the defense commitments that have kept the peace in the region since the end of World War II.

If pressed, Chinese officials will say this buildup is all about Taiwan. If the United States and China can successfully unify Taiwan with China, there would be no problem, the line goes. But does anybody really believe that China will draw down its military if it successfully unifies with Taiwan? Rising powers have a way of growing accustomed to their newfound strength and revising their ambitions accordingly.