US Needs a China Policy

Article excerpt

Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen's visit here last week went reasonably smoothly, but a key question remains: What will US policy toward China be?

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell called China neither a strategic partner nor an implacable foe - but the administration has yet to clarify what it thinks China is.

This leaves a vacuum to be filled by news events: China has announced a significant defense budget increase. Its foreign minister has warned of serious consequences associated with US arms sales to Taiwan. There is news of another Chinese missile base capable of targeting that island. And press coverage of Vice Premier Qian's visit was dominated by China's repugnant treatment of a young American citizen whose mother has been detained by Chinese officials.

These events can provoke our ire or tug our heartstrings, but reacting to them does not a China policy make. The United States must prevent single issues from dominating the bilateral agenda. Both countries must recognize that it is difficult to move past inflammatory rhetoric and should speak in moderate tones.

Although there is a personal connection between the Chinese ambassador here, Yang Jiechi, and former President Bush - a relationship that dates back to the 1970s - more than cordial relations between the president's family and the ambassador is needed. The list of agenda items does not look promising.

American emphasis on China's human rights conditions rubs Beijing the wrong way. China recently released a report, "US Human Rights Record in 2000," attacking the "myth" of American democracy. Furthermore, the US decision to campaign for a resolution in Geneva condemning China's human rights practices makes US partners elsewhere uneasy. The Bush administration may be on the verge of adopting the previous administration's approach, which ended up isolating not China but the US on human rights.

The Bush administration should allow other actors to focus on human rights. Congress and various nongovernmental organizations can be more effective at highlighting abuses over a sustained period, while the executive branch should not push on human rights at the expense of other bilateral issues. The question is whether pressuring China on human rights in Geneva is an ad hoc policy decision or part of a coordinated strategy for developing US-China relations. The distinction is a fundamental one for an administration with limited capital to spend on the relationship. …

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