Relations between China and the rest of the world are at a delicate phase. China is increasingly assertive, driven both by fear of post-Deng political chaos and rising economic confidence. Heavyhanded tactics surrounding the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing's saber-rattling at Taiwan, and the sentencing of dissident Wei Jingsheng are all signs of a China determined to go its own way no matter what others think.
The temptation for U.S. policymakers is to abandon the Administration's current engagement approach, essentially separating trade from other issues dividing the two nations, and adopt policies that isolate China from the global community. Fanning American anger at China are its surging trade surplus and increasing signs that Chinese entrepreneurs can copy U.S. corporate goods and technology with impunity.
It would be far wiser for policymakers to keep to the middle ground in responding to China's emergence as a major power. In recent years, U.S. policy has vacillated between wild optimism over a market of 1.2 billion people and dour condemnation over brutal human-rights violations. Despite inevitable zigs and zags, the U.S. must somehow persuade China to shrink its trade surpluses and restrain its military might--without seeming to be unfairly trying to repress its industrial ambitions. That means engagement, not isolation.
The middle path is open. China clearly wants things from the world, such as membership in the World Trade Organization and full recognition in terms of high-level visits and hosting of international events. The U.S. should work with its allies in Europe and Asia to explain to China's leaders that there are connections between China's conduct and the world's response. China does not wish to create a united front of nations opposed to it nor to be perceived as an international outcast. Yes, condemn China on human rights, but don't go so far that the relationship is destroyed. Support Taiwan against military intimidation by Beijing, and back democracy in Hong Kong. But keep the WTO negotiations alive and maintain trade relations. No matter what, keep on talking.