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Bring Cooler Heads To The China Table



The U.S. calls it engagement. China calls it containment. And politicians in both countries want to call the whole thing off. Relations between the U.S. and China haven't been this bad since Tiananmen Square. Not only is a trade war looming (Beijing just chose Mercedes-Benz over Chrysler for a $1 billion minivan contract to show its pique at the U.S.) but an old-fashioned shooting war across the Taiwan Straits is a real possibility. All three parties--China, Taiwan, and the U.S.--have dangerously overplayed their diplomatic hands. It's time to stop and step back from the brink (page 30).

Miscommunications and naivete play important roles, but domestic politics and weak leadership are mostly responsible for the sad state of affairs. Jiang Zemin, desperate to consolidate his position as the heir to ailing Deng Xiaoping, is taking a nationalistic stance so strong it borders on xenophobia. Clinton is bending to the new strongly pro-Taiwanese GOP congressional majority. Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, running for office in 1996, is playing to the desire for international recognition commensurate with the country's economic power.

It all started with Lee's visit to Cornell University in June. What's wrong with the President of a market democracy with $100 billion in reserves visiting his alma mater? On the surface, nothing. But look how it was mishandled. First, while Lee was permitted into the U.S., Jiang was not welcome. Jiang has been trying to meet with President Clinton for more than a year, with no success. This has humiliated him just when he needs the meeting to buttress his own leadership position. Then, the White House did one of its famous flip-flops on foreign policy. After reassuring Beijing it would not allow Lee in, it simply changed its mind. Worse, the Administration didn't give China or even the U.S.'s own ambassadors in Asia any warning. House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't help by cavalierly suggesting the U.S. just recognize Taiwan's independence.

To most Americans, China is overreacting wildly. Yet the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations, the one-China policy established under Richard Nixon, says that Taiwan is part of China. It is one thing to negotiate with the U.S. over intellectual-property rights, the trade deficit, selling missiles to Pakistan, human rights, or getting into the new World Trade Organization. But Taiwanese independence threatens China deeply.

What is to be done? Taiwan is already backing down. With its stock market off 20%, Taipei is quickly lowering its international political profile. The U.S. should take a step backward as well. Congress can start by dumping its romantic notions. Taiwan is freer today than most Asian countries but the military ruled, as it did in Korea, for nearly 40 years. It took decades of growth to create a middle class that demanded democracy. China is just starting down that road. The U.S., given its own values, must reward Taiwan and press China hard to free Harry Wu and uphold basic human rights. But President Clinton can help by inviting Jiang to meet with him in September when they both will be at the U.N. Reaffirming the U.S.'s commitment to a one-China policy is critical.

China, for its part, has the hardest job. Its current leaders are neophytes on the post-cold-war geopolitical scene. Jiang and his allies in the military and the party who run China have to learn the international rules of the game--the rule of law, open markets, and respect for other countries. China often acts as if it were entitled to its huge trade surplus with the U.S., the oil under the waters near the Philippines, or instant admission to the World Trade Organization. Blustering about, jailing Wu, sending warships near Taiwan are all designed to exacerbate a bad situation, not provide solutions. Giving big contracts to European, rather than American companies, simply erodes the one constituency China has left in the U.S.

Real interests divide the U.S. and China, but poor leadership has made things much worse. This is a dangerous time that calls for cool heads and cautious action.

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