The Stealth Normalization of U.S.-China Relations

By Lampton, David M. | The National Interest, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Stealth Normalization of U.S.-China Relations


Lampton, David M., The National Interest


THE 1947 Marshall Plan conjures to mind certain ideals of foreign policymaking--bipartisan constancy of purpose, political perseverance and vision. Adherence to these ideals secured both American strategic interests and free-market and democratic political values in Western Europe. Though it is less appreciated for doing so, U.S. China policy has followed a similar course. Indeed, Washington has persevered in a far-sighted China policy through seven administrations--from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, although this achievement did not come without periodically robust domestic debate. Even when presidents from Ronald Reagan, through Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush initially considered significantly altering the contours of the relationship with Beijing, each quickly realigned policy according to long-established principles once the costs of change to American interests became apparent.

Washington's policy toward the People's Republic of China (PRC) has exhibited three principal features: first, to define and articulate the key strategic interests that bind the two nations together (while remaining mindful of frictions where they exist); second, to weave the fabric of economic interdependence that binds the two countries together (thereby making conflict progressively more expensive for both peoples); and finally, to cultivate bureaucratic and cultural ties that promote stability between the nations and progressive change within China (by fostering mutual understanding and the economic and social changes underpinning humane governance--with creation of a middle class being central).

The Bush Administration came into office asserting that Bill Clinton's policy of working toward a "constructive strategic partnership" with Beijing was naive. It initially labeled the PRC a "competitor." Today, President Bush presides over a more cooperative relationship with Beijing than Bill Clinton was ever able to secure, and the prospects for progressive political change in China have improved. Indeed, Washington's relationship with Beijing approximates those which it enjoys with many of its traditional "allies", such as France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Canada, Mexico or Turkey. How did we arrive at this juncture, and how might both sides move further forward?

To address these questions, and to better understand the transformation of the Sino-American relationship, we ought to think of it as resting on a three-legged stool, each leg representing security, economic and cultural ties, respectively. During the 1970s and 1980s, our stool would have had a long security leg, a very short economic leg and a somewhat longer cultural leg, making for a very unstable stool indeed. But during the 1990s, our stool's security leg was shortened drastically while the economic and cultural legs continually lengthened. The September 11 attacks once again lengthened the security leg, giving rise to our current arrangement, in which each leg is now of approximately the same length and strength--that is, a much more stable stool on which to rest the Sino-American relationship. But this is a story that deserves to be told literally as well as metaphorically.

The Search for a Strategic Foundation

THE PRE-9/11 circumstance: It is commonly accepted that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union eroded the Nixon-Mao security rationale for productive U.S.-China relations by eliminating the common Soviet enemy. Even before these tectonic shifts, some of the glue holding the relationship together had weakened. In part because of President Reagan's initial pro-Taiwan proclivities and in response to Soviet overtures to improve relations with Beijing, China adopted an "independent foreign policy" to reduce dependence on Washington in 1982, and in the United States, Americans became increasingly aware of human rights abuses in the PRC (culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square violence) as well as China's transfers of weapons of mass destruction-related technology to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the 1980s. …

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