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.

Even before the visit, then, Clinton's policy is not working. But what is the alternative? Not, to be sure, either of the straw men the president set up in his recent talk: neither "to try to isolate and contain China" nor to count on "increased commercial dealings alone" for improvement. What is required is a realistic sense of China's potentialities, a definition of where we want China to go, and a balanced set of measures, both carrots and sticks, to move things along.

Our long-term policy goal with China must be, as it was with the U.S.S.R., to foster political change in a liberal direction, for without freedom in China, genuine peace will be no more likely in Asia than it was in Europe when the Soviet Union existed. But such domestic change may come slowly, or through turmoil, or not at all, so we must hedge against risks by strengthening and developing our cooperation with other free-market and democratic states in Asia.

One who understands this is Bao Tong, former chief of staff to the liberalizing premier Zhao Ziyang who was ousted in 1989, after appearing in Tiananmen Square to plead with the student demonstrators to leave. Bao is the most senior Communist party official to be jailed for political reasons in the last 20 years. Released from prison in 1996, he lives in Beijing, where recently he spoke with the Washington Post. China, Bao said, "has already gone mad twice over the last 40 years. . . . You have to ask yourself a question: What will it do on the international scene? Is it a source of stability or a potential source of instability? When it doesn't have enough power, its attitude will be restrained. But once it develops and becomes strong, what kind of role is it going to play without a complete structural change?" [Italics added.]

The White House pays a certain lip service to this fundamental insight but neglects it in practice, systematically misreading the Chinese scene. To hear the administration tell it, you might think that China's current leadership were gradually and deliberately taking the country toward political pluralism. There is evidence: continuing economic reforms, village elections, the selective exile (as opposed to imprisonment) of leading dissidents, a general warming of the political climate -- all of course welcome.

But what Bao Tong and many others appreciate -- but the administration does not -- is that such moves are merely tactical, in a game by the Chinese leadership whose long-term goal is to resist democratization and hold on to Communist party rule.

President Jiang Zemin, although rather cultured and humane by the previous standards of Chinese leadership, is no liberalizer. He was installed as party secretary in 1989, after the Tiananmen massacre, precisely because he opposed a political opening, and he has systematically excluded liberalizers from leadership positions, even though there are many in the Communist party. He is rumored to be preparing a speech promising democracy sometime around 2020, but there are no signs of the reforms urgently needed now -- and such signs would be obvious: task forces, consulting groups, and so forth.

Jiang's post-dated promises may pacify some critics in Washington, but his procrastination bodes ill for Asia: It suggests that China will not reform in time; that domestic problems will go unacknowledged and unresolved and that tensions will rise; that some event -- a strike, a run on the banks -- may trigger a political crisis, and unrest and disorder in China may ripple out over Asia.

The current Chinese leadership is probably unequal to dealing with these dangers. Jiang Zemin is most concerned with consolidating his own power: He plays factional politics, promotes a minor cult of personality (his biography, Chronicle of General Secretary Jiang Zemin's Important Deeds in Party Building, is reportedly about to be published), and proclaims loyalty to Marxism and "Deng Xiaoping thought." He likes to travel abroad and uses foreign recognition as a substitute for genuine legitimacy at home. He is locked in uneasy rivalry with premier Zhu Rongji and former prime minister Li Peng.

But this ruling group seems to share a common calculation -- which may explode in their faces. It is that economic growth, selective repression, and continued foreign support can make it possible for their Communist party to be the exception worldwide and keep its power.

What Beijing, therefore, wants above all from Clinton during his visit is that he act symbolically in ways that will enhance the prestige of this unelected Chinese leadership. Clinton may play the statesman who esteems substance over symbolism and leaves "the terms of the arrival ceremony" to his Chinese hosts. But when Jiang visited the United States last year his advance teams were at least as interested in the ceremonies (how-many-gun salute? how wide a red carpet?) as in the substance -- and we accommodated them. In any case, no one imagines for a moment that the White House has not been absorbed in setting up photo opportunities and themes of the day for this high-visibility trip (e.g., Guilin, a great beauty spot. Theme of the day: "the environment").

President Clinton wanted this China trip for his own political reasons, which have nothing to do with the substance of the relationship, and the Chinese, knowing this, are making him pay for it. For the visit the Chinese reportedly made two demands: first, that the American president visit Tiananmen Square; second, that he not stop in any other Asian country during the trip. They have evidently also pressured him not to meet one on one with Martin Lee, the triumphantly reelected leader of the Hong Kong democrats. Such gestures are demanded to signal to the Chinese people that the United States supports the Chinese leadership and approves even of its most controversial policies (such as the condemnation of the 1989 democracy movement).

Indeed, for the Chinese leadership, this symbolic approval of their rule is the substance of the visit.

Clinton has unwisely agreed. And every day brings fresh evidence of why he should not have done so. The direction of social change globally is manifestly away from outmoded authoritarian regimes like Suharto's and China's and towards democratically legitimated constitutional systems. Clinton of all people should understand this: He memorably lectured Jiang Zemin about being "on the wrong side of history" during last year's visit. The demand for constitutionalism and democracy has been perennial in China since the turn of the century, and it is picking up once again. The Hong Kong elections flashed unmistakably the message that Chinese people are not just economic animals; they want freedom and political participation too.

Yet the White House seems oblivious. Even as President Clinton verbally acknowledges the need for democratic change in China, his actions signal that he is betting on Jiang Zemin to stay in power and determine the Chinese future. This is as naive as expecting (and many did) that Gorbachev was going to reform, legitimate, and renew the Soviet Union. The fact is that the party's bold decisions to unleash economic and social reform in China over the past two decades have created a tide that is now washing away the foundations of Communist authority. Powerful transforming forces have rendered party rule obsolete and are pushing China toward profound political change. The current leadership, with which the United States seeks deep engagement, has decided to resist that change. But that will not head off change -- only render it more likely to be chaotic or otherwise dangerous.

This building political drama and the American and world response to it should be at the heart of policy, but you will find scarcely a hint of it in the calculations of the Clinton administration. A happy outcome -- a smooth transition to the "stable, open, prosperous China" that the administration seeks -- is unlikely. So what the White House should be doing, along with everything it can to aid a smooth transition, is preparing realistically for a failure of reform. This failure may lead to domestic unrest, or to chaotic liberalization, or to efforts at a new authoritarianism, perhaps coupled with a hardline foreign policy. "Engagement" with China will be no help then. The best bulwark will be our alliances, and today our Asian allies are deeply, if quietly, concerned about the possibility of a well-armed, assertive, and anti-democratic China in the future.

So Clinton's echoing silence, on the eve of his trip, about China's military programs and the security concerns of our allies is both astonishing and deeply worrying. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has faced no immediate or discernible threat. Yet it is pushing full-steam ahead with an ambitious and extensive military buildup. This includes the full panoply of nuclear arms -- all sorts of warheads, MIRVs, surface and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and so forth. In addition there are advanced ex-Soviet anti-ship missiles clearly designed to threaten U.S. carrier battle groups, should these battle groups come to the aid of an Asian ally in the future; advanced fighter aircraft, stealthy diesel submarines, plans for a Chinese aircraft carrier, as well as space and information-warfare capabilities.

What is this all for? In part it is clearly a payoff to the People's Liberation Army, which was not happy about murdering the students in June 1989 and wants the proverbial "new toys." But the buildup also has something to do with Chinese territorial claims -- the lines on official Chinese maps that do not correspond to reality, but show as sovereign territory of the People's Republic of China everything from Taiwan and the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands to the South China Sea and disputed territories along the Korean and Indian borders. There are the makings here of many a bloody battle, and the weapons China is currently developing -- "force-projection" capabilities such as aircraft and blue-water naval forces -- suggest Beijing has not ruled out the use of force.

Our allies have reason to be worried, but we profess not to be. How seriously can allies take a U.S. president who doesn't even mention their most important concern? After all, when we dealt with the Soviet Union, even the most resolute doves insisted on talking with Moscow about, among other things, Soviet arms. But what kind of weapons is Clinton going to talk about limiting with a rapidly rearming China?

The almost comical answer is: Indian and Pakistani. Those countries, says Clinton, must "recognize that developing weapons of mass destruction is the wrong way to define their greatness." One may ask: Does that go for China too, which has an incomparably more advanced and active nuclear program? Or is Chinese greatness different? Or for that matter, how about the United States? Our Asian allies are understandably puzzled.

Nor will reference to the way we define our policy help them. The official phrase for our goal with China is "constructive strategic partnership." We have carefully indicated that "strategic" here has nothing to do with things military: We are interested, it seems, in the environment, rescues at sea, and so forth. But someone should have checked a few dictionaries before settling on this exact wording. For in both Chinese and Japanese the first component of the compound meaning "strategic" is the character for "war" [zhan in Chinese, sen in Japanese]. In those two languages then, it is hard to avoid reading the American policy as being, in effect, a military alliance.

So far, our Asian allies are not openly criticizing the ever more apparent tilt toward China by the Clinton White House, but in private they express alarm. We, in turn, should be alarmed by the possibilities for ourselves and for the region if their fear and distrust lead them to move away from the United States and instead to seek to guarantee their own security.

Japan is the keystone of the current Asian security structure. Both the Japanese government and the Japanese people are deeply worried about renewed nuclear proliferation, and as a result they may be moving away from their long-held pacifism. They are moreover stung by the degree to which Clinton bypasses them and their interests, but -- owing to their cumbersome domestic politics and low international profile -- they are unwilling to make a scene. Thoughtful Japanese have valued stabilizing alliances since the days of their alignment with Britain early in this century, and today, in spite of its difficulties, they value their connection with the United States very highly. But it is now becoming thinkable that the alliance could end, undermined and displaced by the American connection to Beijing.

Much the same story can be told for nearly every Asian state. Worried by China and increasingly uncertain about U.S. policy, they are considering ways to guarantee their security unilaterally -- witness, for example, the proliferation of advanced fighter and submarine programs in Asia. But unilateral security is generally a mirage: A world of individual strong states without alliances or shared interests will be a dangerous and anarchic place. The U.S. tilt, which strengthens China alone, only adds to this dangerous regional trend.

The Indian nuclear tests prove just how destabilizing is the Chinese military buildup. India faces China on three borders: to the north directly and to the east and west through China's increasingly well-armed allies Pakistan and Burma. China has contributed decisively to Pakistan's missile and nuclear programs, with little U.S. response. Washington should at least have grasped that India might go nuclear and that therefore U.S. vigilance was in order. But it didn't.

So what is worrisome here is not only the Indian proliferation itself, but also the fact that the administration discounted the possibility of proliferation -- despite the clear logic of events, despite public statements by Indian leaders, despite intelligence information about earlier Indian preparations for tests. This is what is called wishful thinking. As with China, the Clinton White House is not making realistic assessments. Instead it is painting eloquent and politically expedient word-pictures, full of "peace" and "stability" and "dialogue" and so forth, which may be wonderful to contemplate, but which provide no map, or a dangerously misleading map, of the years ahead.

To fix things, only a new policy will do -- a policy squarely addressing the military buildup that worries China's neighbors and is driving Asian arms races. Like many foreigners ignorant of Asia, President Clinton and his colleagues may be bedazzled by China's size, power, and superficial unity, to say nothing of the prospect of money to be made there. Like others before them, they ignore the risks and pitfalls. But although good relations and proper diplomacy with Beijing are most desirable, China is far too unpredictable to serve as a cornerstone of U.S. Asian policy. The uncertainty surrounding China's future argues for keeping some distance -- and resting our interests and Asia's on democratic values and tested friendships.

Arthur Waldron is Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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