Magazine article Brookings Review

Relations with the Great Powers: China

Magazine article Brookings Review

Relations with the Great Powers: China

Article excerpt

Last January, a high-level Chinese official visiting the United States aptly summarized Sino-American relations at the beginning of the second Clinton term. "The atmosphere is better," he told his American hosts, "but the problems are many."

The atmosphere of U.S. relations with China is better because, for the first time in four years, the Clinton administration has finally put a sensible China policy in place. Practice, it seems, is paying off. The new approach is no less than the third distinct policy toward China adopted by the U.S. government since President Clinton took office in January 1993.


The first policy, born of a campaign promise to stop "coddling dictators" in Beijing, involved a single-minded focus on promoting human rights in China. It was based on the assumption that only intense pressure, principally through the threat to revoke China's most-favored-nation trade status, could force Beijing to improve its human rights record. High-level contact with China was to be withheld until progress had been achieved.

By the end of 1993, however, it had become increasingly evident that China was not succumbing to the American pressure on human rights and that other aspects of the relationship warranted attention. At that point the administration unveiled its second China policy - one that it called "comprehensive engagement." It entailed more frequent exchange of cabinet-level visits to discuss a broader bilateral agenda. The aim was to show that, on these other issues, the United States and China might find areas of cooperation and thus bring the overall relationship into better balance.

The problem was that the overall purpose of "engagement" was never effectively conveyed to Beijing. Even after the Clinton administration withdrew its threat to revoke Beijing's most-favored-nation status in the name of continued economic engagement with China, many Chinese concluded that "engagement" was simply a euphemism for containment and that American policy was really intended to keep China weak and divided so that it would never seriously challenge American preeminence in Asia.

The 1995 controversy over Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States, and the subsequent Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, showed how deeply China had come to mistrust American intentions. From Beijing's perspective, the visa granted to Lee Teng-hui showed that Washington now planned to promote the independence of Taiwan as part of its overall strategy of containing the rise of Chinese power.


The tensions in the Taiwan Strait persuaded the Clinton administration to adopt a fresh approach to China to reduce the chances of confrontation. The new policy, unveiled in the middle of last year, was an advance over "comprehensive engagement" in two ways. First, Washington explained that the purpose was not containment, as the Chinese feared, but rather the integration of China into the international community so that the rise of Chinese power could be absorbed in constructive ways. Second, the United States agreed to raise the official Sino-American dialogue to the highest level, offering the first bilateral summit meetings since George Bush's visit to China in early 1989.

The Clinton administration's third China policy has been reasonably well received in Beijing. The Chinese government seems to have accepted the assurances that the United States does not seek to contain China and that it hopes to achieve a cooperative relationship. Chinese officials particularly welcome Washington's willingness to resume regular summit meetings between Chinese and American leaders. Thus, Chinese spokesmen have repeatedly said that the atmosphere for Sino-American relations has been significantly improved as a result of the new American initiative.


But the U.S.-China relationship is still bedeviled by a long list of vexing issues, from trade to human rights, and from proliferation to Taiwan. …

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