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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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.