IN RECENT MONTHS, THE CHINESE government has handed down harsh prison terms to political dissidents. It has made clear its intention to curtail civil liberties when it takes control of Hong Kong in July. It has redoubled its efforts to restrict the flow of information reaching Chinese citizens over the Internet. It has reasserted and, in certain respects, extended its claims to oceans, islands, and resources in the South China Sea. It has been found diverting precision machine tools obtained through a commercial deal with a major U.S. aerospace firm from civilian to military purposes. And it has continued the modernization of its armed forces, especially its air and naval power-projection capabilities. Just over a year ago, Beijing orchestrated massive military exercises aimed at influencing the outcome of Taiwan's first democratic presidential election. This campaign of intimidation culminated with the launching of several salvos of ballistic missiles into the waters off Taiwan's two largest ports. According to published accounts, Chinese officials also took the occasion to remind their American counterparts that, in the end, Americans "care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taipei." The import of these remarks seems clear enough: If it goes too far in defending Taiwan, the United States risks nuclear war with the mainland.

These events have led not to a searching debate but to an almost ritualistic reaffirmation of the current U.S. policy of "engagement" with China. Seemingly shaken by last spring's Taiwan Straits crisis, top American officials, including the president and his new secretary of state, have forsworn any intention to confront or "contain" China, proclaiming instead their renewed desire to engage Beijing in trade, bilateral diplomacy, and multilateral institutions. Nor is this a controversial stance. The last few months have also seen a steady stream of reports by prestigious bipartisan study groups and articles by respected China scholars and officials in past Republican administrations urging a similar course and warning of the dangers of deviation. The consensus on this issue is solid, even stifling.

The advocates of engagement fall into two distinct camps: those who hope to transform China and those who say that they seek simply to tame it. The first group emphasizes the profound benefits of economic engagement. Foreign trade and investment will, they argue, promote Chinese development and unleash irresistible social and political forces. As China grows richer, it will become more democratic, and, as it becomes democratic, its foreign and military policies will grow less assertive and less troubling to its neighbors.

The second group of engagers is more cautious in its prognostications and, in any case, more circumspect in announcing its intention to undermine the current Chinese regime. China, in this view, does not have to become a democracy in order to be a good global citizen; its leaders merely have to learn to play by the rules. The proximate goal of U.S. strategy should therefore be to teach China's leaders the benefits of involvement in the full array of international economic and political institutions. The advantages of inclusion and, presumably, the costs of exclusion should be sufficient to induce the Chinese government to moderate its external behavior. If, over time, China becomes more open, more pluralistic, and more respectful of the rights of its citizens, so much the better; but such domestic changes are not essential and they should not be the primary objective of American policy.

"Transformers" and "tamers" differ on the precise ends they seek, but they are agreed on the means: America and its Asian allies may have to nudge China every once in a while to keep it on track, but they should do so discreetly, behind closed doors, and not through public denunciations, the imposition of economic sanctions, or, least of all, heightened military preparations or the formation of anything remotely resembling an anti-Chinese alliance. Such steps would have disastrous, self-defeating consequences. The thing to do is to trade, talk, "engage," and let history run its course.

This is a pleasing story. But is it plausible?

The alleged incompatibility of capitalism and authoritarianism is an article of faith among the transformers and, in the long run, they may be right. To date, however, China's Communist leaders have proven themselves quite adept at promoting market-driven economic growth while at the same time suppressing political dissent.

The link between democratization and peace is also not as simple or as direct as the transformers appear to believe. To the contrary, there are good historical reasons to fear that, as China's political processes become somewhat more open and its rulers are forced to compete more directly for mass approval and elite support, Chinese foreign policy could grow more, rather than less, assertive. This may already be happening. Public expressions of disapproval by student groups and military officers seem to have been one factor encouraging Beijing to take a harder line in its most recent confrontation with Japan over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It is a mistake to assume that a more pluralistic China (albeit one that is not yet a stable, established democracy) will necessarily be a more placid, contented power.

China's domestic transformation may take longer, and it may be more turbulent and less predictable in its course and consequences than the advocates of engagement are willing to acknowledge. The notion that China can be readily integrated into the existing international system should also be regarded with skepticism. It is condescending and ahistorical to assume that China wants nothing more than acceptance into "polite society" and a bigger share of the global economic pie. Nor is it obvious that high-level diplomatic dialogue will be sufficient to close the gap between the Chinese and American visions of a just and stable order. As in the past, the United States will remain committed to preventing any single power from dominating East Asia. But regional hegemony appears to be precisely what China's leaders have in mind. Not all differences can be split, or smoothed over with soothing talk.

The fact that engagement may eventually fail does not mean that it should be promptly abandoned. Adopting a more confrontational stance toward China at this point would be costly and potentially very risky. But the risks and costs are not all on one side. Continued dramatic economic growth, and virtually unlimited access to foreign technology, will permit China rapidly to increase its military capabilities. The balance of power in Asia will likely be far more favorable to China ten years from now than it is today, especially if, in the absence of any acknowledged threat, U.S. strength in the region is permitted to dwindle.

The avidity with which the United States appears to have embraced engagement, and its seeming reluctance to consider any alternative, could also have a number of unintended consequences. A willingness to be accommodating can easily be misinterpreted as weakness, thereby tempting aggression. The engagers worry that confrontation would delay reform and strengthen the hand of China's hardest hardliners, but, taken too far, their preferred policies could have precisely the same effect. Repeated assurances of our commitment to engagement, regardless of provocation, will lend credence to those in Beijing who argue that American pliability is a product of Chinese toughness. And our seeming indifference cannot help but be deeply demoralizing to those who genuinely favor reform.

An overly accommodating stance may also send the wrong signals to our present and potential allies in Asia. If the United States appears reluctant to stand up to China, smaller and weaker states will certainly not be eager to do so on their own, and they may begin to seek reinsurance by cutting separate diplomatic deals with the rising regional power. Beijing's ability to offer economic inducements (including access to its growing market and to lucrative government contracts) could also serve to make its neighbors more compliant. American planners may believe that they can rally a coalition to contain China when the need arises, but they could find this a difficult task if it ever does.

Current policy is also premised on the assumption that the United States will be able to modulate its own dealings with China, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. This too could turn out to be harder in practice than it is in theory. The American policymaking process is an exceptionally open one.

Powerful corporations already have enormous stakes in China, and they will lobby hard to prevent actions that could harm their interests. Any move toward greater toughness would also be met with counter-pressures from Asian governments, which fear antagonizing China, and from overseas economic interests. (The fact that Chinese arms dealers can gain access to the White House suggests that Beijing, too, has a variety of ways of making its voice heard.)

Whatever its initial intentions, as engagement proceeds, Washington will find itself increasingly tempted to "define deviancy down," overlooking Chinese behavior that would seem to demand an economically costly, politically difficult, or strategically dangerous response. The engagers think that they are lulling China and coaxing it into accepting their vision of the future. But who is lulling whom?

The Clinton administration has committed itself to two major foreign-policy initiatives: enlarging NATO and engaging China. Of these, the second is at least as important as the first; indeed, given China's dynamism and Russia's decline, it will probably turn out in the long run to be much more so. Where the debate over enlargement has been open, thorough, and spirited, however, the discussion of engagement has been cramped and constrained, and it seems now to be on the verge of premature closure. This is unhealthy, and given the stakes, the complexities, and the uncertainties involved, it is also most unwise. It may be too early to abandon engagement, but it is not too late to begin a fundamental reexamination of its premises and potential dangers.

Aaron Friedberg is director of Princeton University's Research Program in International Security.

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