The only thing clear about President Bill Clinton's policy toward China is that it is not working. Clinton calls his strategy "comprehensive engagement." The idea is to talk to China on many fronts so that no single problem dominates. But this piecemeal approach has been easy for the Chinese to shrug off. Whatever the issue, from software piracy to gunboat diplomacy in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. is not having much luck at influencing Chinese behavior.
At the same time, China's willingness to test its growing economic and political muscle is setting off alarms in Washington and East Asia. If Clinton is unable to manage relations with China, there is a danger that the world's most populous nation and the U.S. could wind up in a kind of 21st-century cold war. That would pose an enormous strategic problem for the U.S.--and put billions in investments by American companies at serious risk.
The challenge for the Clinton Administration is to craft a more focused, consistent China policy that serves long-term U.S. interests. One aspect of the existing policy is on target: U.S. and Chinese officials should be talking often on a wide range of issues. Although the dialogue has yielded scant results so far, cutting it off won't help. Washington must, however, sharpen up what now seems to be a scattershot approach. Here's how:
--SET PRIORITIES. The point of engagement should be to integrate China into regional and global economic and security systems. The U.S. must focus its efforts on issues that are important and where influence can be brought to bear. Halting Chinese trafficking in nuclear-weapons technology should be a top goal for Clinton. The same goes for making sure China enters the World Trade Organization on similar terms to that of other industrial nations. China also has to be aware that it will pay a big price if it crosses the line in its efforts to intimidate Taiwan. But the U.S., unfortunately, has little leverage to compel Beijing to clean up its human-rights abuses.
--BE CONSISTENT. Engagement does not preclude being tough with China when it flouts key U.S. interests. Rampant Chinese piracy of American trademarks and copyrights is a good example. If China continues to make a mockery of the Sino-U.S. accord on intellectual-property rights, Washington should waste little time in slapping on tough sanctions. If the U.S. won't enforce basic trade agreements, how can it expect China to play by the rules in other areas, such as security? Says a top U.S. official: "The Chinese need to understand that a deal is a deal."
--RALLY THE ALLIES. The trouble with unilateral sanctions, however, is that other nations don't go along. That encourages Beijing to view the U.S. as The Enemy while our allies play China's good buddy, often winning deals for their own companies at the expense of U.S. business. The U.S. must work harder to marshal global support. Chinese copyright ripoffs harm Japanese and European industry, too. Moreover, if the U.N. censured Beijing on human rights, it would embarrass the regime far more than fiery rhetoric on Capitol Hill. America's allies "can't be free riders on the burdens we take," says Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale University School of Management and a former top Commerce Dept. official.
--DEEPEN ENGAGEMENT. The more dialogue there is, especially at high levels, the more likely the U.S. and China will understand one another's motives and concerns. That would minimize the risks of dangerous miscalculations, such as a Chinese attack on Taiwan in a mistaken assumption of American indifference. Besides, if the bilateral relationship becomes better established, it will more easily be able to withstand shocks.
--GET CONGRESS ON BOARD. No engagement policy will succeed without bipartisan support. Clinton must personally put forth a coherent China policy--and persuade Congress not to undercut it. A key goal should be to end the annual debate over China's most-favored-nation trade status. This ritual has become an occasion for Congress to lash out at China for everything from human-rights violations to arms trafficking. But doing so is silly and futile because yanking MFN status would harm U.S. commercial interests immeasurably without changing China's behavior. If Congress won't act responsibly, the Administration should find a way to grant China permanent MFN.
No doubt, it is tempting in an election year to let China policy drift. But economically and militarily, China can't be ignored. It will soon be the most powerful player in Asia. That makes it imperative to rethink how to deal with this emerging giant. Given its deep suspicion of foreigners, the Middle Kingdom will continue to be a difficult partner. But it need not become the next Evil Empire.