"WE HAVE good relations with China, the best relations we've had with China in 30 years," Secretary of State Colin Powell has been saying recently. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, the odds are several areas of conflict will soon make U.S.-China relations a lot rockier. Here are six issues that will cause Washington-Beijing ties to fray.
TAIWAN. Despite Bush administration hopes, the March 20 presidential election will not relieve tensions in the Taiwan strait or alleviate Beijing's pressure on Washington to lessen its support for Taiwan. The administration has very nearly chosen sides against the incumbent Chen Shui-bian as a result of Beijing's browbeating and its own secret fears that the one-China policy is hopelessly outdated.
But regardless of which candidate wins on March 20--Chen or the Nationalist Lien Chan--the Bush administration can expect tensions to persist. China will continue to build up its military capabilities. Meanwhile, Taiwan's population is developing a distinct Taiwanese identity. Economic ties to the mainland that many hope will dull independence leanings in many cases have the opposite effect. Even the Nationalist camp now rejects the "pro-unification" label. Beijing cannot reconcile itself to Taiwan's deepening democratic character.
HONG KONG. Beijing's flat rejection of democracy for Hong Kong and its heavy-handed threats against democrats as unpatriotic will force Washington to take a stand. For years, Washington has tacitly accepted Beijing's terms for governing Hong Kong, pretending they allow autonomy and democratic development. Beijing's system does no such thing, and Hong Kong's people are still voting and marching for real autonomy and democracy. Last summer, Beijing had to withdraw undemocratic national security provisions after well over 500,000 people marched against them.
Tensions are rising. Beijing fears next September's legislative elections will return a majority of pro-democracy members. Beijing distrusts Hong Kong's people, who supported Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, and commemorate the victims of the massacre every June 4. In recent days, one Hong Kong group began a petition drive in support of Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the courageous SARS whistleblower who has written to top Chinese officials asking them to reverse the Communist party's position on Tiananmen Square. Others who have asked for such an acknowledgment by the party have gone to jail. No matter how much the United States would like to stay on the sidelines, the president's expressed support for democracy will lead to conflict with Beijing.
NORTH KOREA. In the coming months, it will be impossible for Washington to ignore the fact that Beijing is playing both sides of the street on the North Korean nuclear crisis. In fact, that recognition may be dawning. Just a week ago, when China tried to insert a key demand of Pyongyang's into a statement during the latest six-party talks, President Bush intervened to say U.S. patience was wearing thin. The president, the Washington Post reported, "sent the curt directive after China sought to include in the statement a reference to North Korea's demand that the United States change its 'hostile policy.'" Moreover, according to the Post, the administration rejected another draft statement written by the Chinese "because it did not call for the 'complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement''' of North Korea's nuclear programs, a consistent requirement of the Bush administration's that China opposes.
At best, China has not used its considerable leverage as North Korea's main supplier of food and fuel, and continues to repatriate North Korean refugees to terrible fates. At worst, Beijing does Pyongyang's bidding. In short, Washington will have to recognize that Beijing is an obstacle to, not part of, a solution in North Korea.
HUMAN RIGHTS. The Bush administration makes an exception for China when it comes to promoting democracy around the world. That much was clear from the president's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy last November. But the administration has nevertheless set itself up for a confrontation with Beijing over human rights. Starting in February 2003, the secretary of state and his spokesman began speaking of "setbacks," "deterioration," and "backsliding" in China's record, citing arrests of democracy activists, harsh sentences against Internet users and labor protesters, the execution of a Tibetan, forced repatriation from Nepal of Tibetan refugees, and actions against the media.
Last week, Secretary Powell hinted in testimony on Capitol Hill that the United States will renew efforts--suspended last year--to advance a resolution on China at the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Even that gentle threat had an effect. Shortly after Secretary Powell spoke, China sent Wang Youcai, a political prisoner, into exile here. A U.S.-led resolution would increase pressure on the E.U. not to lift its embargo on arms sales to China and signal a more serious U.S. policy on democracy and human rights.
TIBET. Tibet has been under the heel of China since the 1950s, with tragic consequences. Beijing's obliteration of Tibetan culture and the advancing age of the current Dalai Lama, who will be 69 in July, make winning autonomy and freedom for Tibetans urgent. China has plans to impose its own Dalai Lama when the current one dies. It has already subverted the Dalai Lama's selection of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibet, who in 1995 was taken away by Chinese authorities and another boy given the position.
While the Bush administration has continued a trend of giving higher priority to Tibet, it confines itself to urging "dialogue," rather than seeking concrete political objectives such as stopping the massive population transfers of ethnic Chinese, economic marginalization of Tibetans, environmental degradation, and the militarization of the Tibetan plateau. These problems will only be intensified by Beijing's western development initiative, which includes a railroad connecting Lhasa with China's interior. President Bush, with his strong support for religious freedom, will be unable to look away from what may be the last chance to protect Tibetan religion and culture from annihilation by the Chinese.
PROLIFERATION. Last but not least, the United States will have to face the contradiction between its opposition to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in general and its tolerance for China's proliferation to states like Pakistan. President Bush has made antiproliferation efforts a priority. In his speech at the National Defense University in February, he unveiled a proposal to close a loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows nasty regimes to produce nuclear material for bombs under the cover of civilian nuclear programs. While China is getting more sophisticated at pretending to be on board with multilateral efforts on proliferation, it isn't. Beijing isn't even a member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the centerpiece of the administration's North Korea policy. As evidence mounts of China's long history of providing nuclear technology and equipment throughout the world (as in Libya), and as Beijing pursues new activities (like its recent deal to build a second nuclear plant in Pakistan) against U.S. entreaties, strains between the two countries are bound to grow.
Ellen Bork is a deputy director of the Project for the New American Century.