The New Stakes In U.S. China Relations

The man who brought global capitalism to China is dead. Deng Xiaoping left behind a society marked by rising living standards, social inequality, and growing nationalism. Deng's hand-picked successor, Jiang Zemin, reigns rather than rules within a collective leadership that includes military and political hard-liners as well as economic reformers. They hope to use China's booming economy to project power on the international scene while maintaining their post-communist authority at home. Therein lies the quandary for U.S. policy.

The U.S. expects China's market economy to lead to democracy, human rights, and the smooth integration of the giant nation into the global system. Evidence that this may take a long time is hardening Washington's attitude toward China. Environmentalists are blocking Export-Import Bank loans to U.S. corporations for China's giant Three Gorges Dam. The conservative Weekly Standard, in an issue devoted solely to China, basically calls for a new cold war against it. The director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency describes China as a "threat" to future U.S. interests. And the possibility that the Chinese Embassy was involved in funneling money to the Democratic National Committee during the recent Presidential election has Washington's blood up. It is no accident that the hot new book inside the beltway is The Coming Conflict with China.

Things threaten to spiral out of control. Hong Kong's transfer to Chinese control in July will be one flash point. China's threat to water down Hong Kong's civil liberties has already angered Congress. Should there be a failure of Beijing to live up to its promise of full autonomy for Hong Kong, U.S.-Sino relations could sour fast.

Only strong personal commitments from both Jiang and Clinton can carry the two nations over the rocky period ahead. At upcoming summits, the two leaders should express the need for solid ties between the U.S. and China. Both Deng and George Bush fought to keep their hard-liners at bay. Jiang and Clinton must do the same. The two countries must engage at a pragmatic, realistic level. They don't have to be friends, but they must not become enemies.

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