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.

Japan does not think China's only strategic goal is Taiwan, and neither do Singapore and India, countries that are modernizing their militaries with China on their minds.

The U.S. response was laid out by the Pentagon official in charge of planning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans James Thomas: "[We are] looking at making adjustments in our naval posture globally, shifting to six carrier battle groups in the Pacific region . . . as well as over the next several years shifting approximately 60 percent of our attack submarine fleet to the Pacific." And the Pentagon is looking at developing a new long-range bomber.

So shoring up alliances and partnerships and adjusting our force posture to the new strategic reality are the hedging part of our China policy. What about the diplomacy piece of the puzzle: getting China to "make the right strategic choices for its people" (code for democratization) and to contribute to the international system rather than simply extracting benefits from it?

Here, our success has been limited. Efforts to give China the lead in talks to denuclearize North Korea have not borne fruit: Beijing seems satisfied with a status quo of intermittent diplomacy that subordinates denuclearizing North Korea to simply getting countries to the negotiating table. Likewise, China extracts great energy benefits from its relationship with Iran while spurning international efforts to get the mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Presumably this is not the kind of "responsible stakeholder" behavior Zoellick called for.

Getting the Chinese Communist party to see democracy as in its interest will be even tougher going. The urban business elites, high-level party members and their families, and even many public intellectuals who have been co-opted or bought off have a strong interest in maintaining the current system.

Reconciling engagement and hedging policies is difficult. The one is based on trust, and the other, suspicion. We are thus sending mixed messages to allies who may be needed should relations with Beijing deteriorate. It will be far easier for those in Europe and Asia who are economically invested in China to say that more engagement is needed if China grows more confrontational.

And of course strategy is interactive: China will respond. Beijing will target our allies with inducements and implicit threats. Australia, for example, whose economy is booming thanks in large part to exports to China, was asked last year to "re-look" at the ANZUS treaty--i.e., reconsider its security alliance with the United States. Canberra's answer was Australia's polite equivalent of "pound sand," but we can expect more of the same.

For every move we make--building a partnership with India, for example--China counters with its own. In addition, China will continue to push for regional groupings that exclude the United States, work with Russia to try and eject the United States from Central Asia, and come into our own backyard by forging partnerships with the likes of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

So what should we do? The current policy framework is a start, with certain conditions. China should really be held to account, not only by the United States but also by other major trading partners such as the E.U., Japan, and Australia, for irresponsible behavior. Iran is a perfect test case: a threat that the world's democracies actually agree upon. If China is not willing to risk its energy deals with the mullahs to get them to denuclearize, Beijing should be publicly condemned, and its leaders should certainly not be received in America or Europe as if they were true partners.

Democracy promotion should be at the top of the agenda as well. The United States and other democracies should make a point of meeting with groups and individuals who are not sanctioned by the Communist party--lawyers representing peasant groups, religious groups, and NGOs highlighting environmental degradation.

It is important to remember two things as we deal with Beijing: China is not just the CCP; it also comprises dissidents and activists agitating for more freedom; and China's major trading partners still have more leverage over Beijing than vice versa. Yes, America benefits from trade with China, but without the American market the Chinese economy would come close to collapse. The message to China should be clear: We accept you if you play by the rules, which in the 21st century means becoming a democracy, joining in international efforts to keep the most dangerous weapons from getting into the hands of the most dangerous regimes, and settling differences with neighbors such as Taiwan and Japan through diplomacy, not military intimidation.

So why was the Bush-Hu meeting, like a Seinfeld episode, a "summit about nothing"? It could well be that China has no interest in becoming a "responsible stakeholder," and President Bush knows this. After all, if the United States and Europe are prepared to play bad cop on Iran, Beijing has every incentive to play good cop--far better to enjoy the fruits of those energy deals without angering the mullahs. It is up to Washington and its allies to create incentives for Beijing to play ball. One way to start is no more "summits about nothing" until China begins acting responsibly.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.