Only a year ago, relations between the U.S. and China seemed about to enter a stable new era. President Clinton's May, 1994, decision to de-link annual renewal of most-favored-nation trade status for China from its human-rights record eliminated a major source of friction between Washington and Beijing. Economic relations brightened. And American CEOs, eager to tap China's booming markets, rushed to join Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown on a trade mission to Beijing.
This year, the Ron Brown Express sits idly in the hangar. Bitter disputes about a visit to the U.S. by Taiwan's President, a bulging trade imbalance, and Chinese arms trafficking have sent Sino-U.S. relations into a tailspin. Now, Chinese officials are threatening to re-link trade and political concerns by throwing juicy deals to Corporate America's rivals as punishment for Washington's transgressions. "Not since the cold war started have relations between two powers deteriorated so far so fast," laments one Administration official.
"HUGE LEVERAGE." Given such mistrust, it's going to be tough for the U.S. and China to get back on firm footing. But they have no choice. For the U.S., the fraying of U.S.-China ties erodes America's stature in Asia, could cost U.S. companies billions, and hurt security goals, such as curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For China, the U.S. is its biggest export market. Take that away, plus U.S. technology and capital, and Beijing can't fuel economic growth. "Our wealth is huge leverage over the Chinese," says Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington.
What to do? For starters, a statement by the President that the U.S. supports a unified and prosperous China would help reassure suspicious minds in Beijing who are convinced that Clinton is simply out to contain a growing giant. And the White House must belatedly seize control of the agenda by telling China-baiters in Congress and Taipei to cool it. Now isn't the time to goad Beijing by enhancing Taiwan's stature.
For its part, China should find a way to release prominent Chinese-American human-rights activist Harry Wu and free top Chinese dissidents. Beijing may think that by arresting Wu it is signaling its anger over the Taiwanese President's visit. But it is really spotlighting China's repressive ways and stoking heat from resurgent China critics on Capitol Hill.
Longer-term, the Administration must develop a more sophisticated strategy for dealing with the Middle Kingdom. The Clintonites are right to seek to engage China across the board: The U.S. has too many interests at stake to let any one issue drive the relationship. But Washington also must map out its priorities more carefully.
Nurturing security and commercial ties should top the list, given China's military might and economic potential. Marshaling global support for China's admission to the new World Trade Organization on tough commercial terms is key. But it may not make sense to threaten sanctions over weapons sales that affront U.S. standards but do not violate international law. Nor is it wise for Congress to denounce China's human-rights record publicly at every turn instead of stepping up pressure quietly and meeting Beijing's request for help in modernizing its judicial system.
Then, there's Beijing's up-and-coming crop of leaders, who should stop acting like cold-war communists and develop some global-era foreign-policy flair. For all of its military and economic power, China is amazingly backward in its dealings with Washington. Instead of anticipating pitfalls in its relations with the U.S., the Chinese react shrilly when problems occur. And their lobbying is limited to crude moves such as squeezing American companies to pressure U.S. policymakers. China must realize that accepting international norms on trade and security matters, as well as redressing its Draconian approach to human rights, is the only way it will ever shed its status as an outlaw nation.
There's plenty of blame to go around for the chill that has settled over U.S.-China ties. Says a China hand in Washington: "It's been Dumb and Dumber in terms of who is mismanaging the relationship more."
If the U.S. wants to shore up its credibility as a superpower, it must use its leverage wisely to keep China engaged. And if China wants to be treated like a budding superpower, it must start behaving like one.