Commentary: The U.S. And China: Now For The Follow Through

Bill Clinton's spin doctors had a field day in China. The President's gamble of talking about human rights paid off handsomely, disarming his domestic critics and bringing forth an unprecedented degree of openness from the Chinese. Live, uncensored TV feeds of Clinton's debate with President Jiang Zemin on such issues as freedom of expression, or of Beijing University students peppering Clinton with questions on human rights and U.S.-Taiwan policy, showed the President at his best--and a distinctly new and human face of China.

Behind the media hype, though, there was real substance. President Clinton finally laid the basis for a normal relationship with China. He sent a strong signal that China, and not Japan, will be America's main interlocutor in Asia in the 21st century. Neither the President nor his Treasury Secretary, Robert E. Rubin, for instance, even bothered to stop over in Tokyo. And on June 30, Clinton used Beijing's so-called "three no's" formula to reject Taiwan's independence. This politically significant act could lay the groundwork for disentangling the U.S. from an explosive issue.

CALCULATED RISK. With Asia battered by widespread economic meltdown and shaken by political events such as nuclear weapons testing by India and Pakistan, detente with China couldn't be better timed. But the summit's success is just a beginning. It's one thing to discuss Tibet or freedom of expression in the Chinese media--and quite another to get Beijing to make real changes. Without consistent diplomatic follow-through, something the Clinton Administration often finds hard, any advances risk being transitory.

Both leaders had much to gain politically from the summit. President Jiang emerges from the shadows cast over him by the bold economic reform agenda of Premier Zhu Rongji. He now appears as a world leader and has won recognition for China's global role. Consequently, his government is less exposed as reforms enter the painful phase, unemployment balloons, and growth slows. Also, by showing that talking gets results on issues like Taiwan, he will find it easier to handle hard-liners such as the People's Liberation Army generals who still prefer to rattle sabres across the Strait of Taiwan.

What President Clinton came away with is less tangible, but equally important. The odds are China has finally been coaxed out of its long isolation and is now prepared to start acting as a responsible world citizen. With Asia's delicate economic health, China's commitment not to devalue its currency is significant and extremely helpful--especially as Japan dithers again over pulling its weight in a crisis. By softening the xenophobic edge of China's take on the world, Clinton may have done more to help U.S. business than the official agenda--short on commercial events--would suggest.

The White House, mainly for domestic political reasons, took a calculated gamble in not dialing for dollars in Beijing. Clinton's refusal to take along a retinue of corporate chief executives angered those who had hoped to snare contracts. In the long run, though, business may be better served by the less direct approach. The important issue is not a few trophy deals now but rather a steady and irreversible commitment by China to the global economy and open markets. China's signature on a World Trade Organization admission protocol offers more future possibilities than one on a contract now.

Business has much to gain from a steadier, more normal Sino-U.S. relationship. Presidents Clinton and Jiang have laid its foundations. They need to be built on promptly, otherwise they will start to crumble.