China - the Big Picture

JOSEPH Nye said best what needs to be remembered about China: ''If you treat China as an enemy, then you will have an enemy.''

Professor Nye is currently US assistant secretary of defense for international security. And that bureaucratic title, for once, expresses the central fact about China. To have international security - economic, environmental, and military - great powers like America need to persuade, not browbeat, Beijing into internationally acceptable and useful behavior.

Does that mean giving ground on the rights of Harry Wu, American citizen held without access to US consular officials for 20 days in breach of international law?

No.

Does that mean an abject US promise not to admit the president of Taiwan ever again?

No.

Does it mean permitting erosion of the international system for monitoring sales of long-range missiles that can carry nuclear warheads?

Again, no.

But it does mean carrying on negotiations on all these subjects in a serious, non-attacking way at a high level. In such negotiations several points can be made, without either ultimatums or kowtowing. Without hypocrisy, the US can salute the wisdom of China's fading but genuinely historic leader, Deng Xiaoping, in freeing political prisoners including Mr. Wu in the late 1970s. Deng was himself a victim of banishment and house arrest under Chairman Mao.

American negotiators can also point out their nation's long tradition of admitting opponents of governments with which Washington enjoyed good relations. Examples: Algerian leaders when France ruled that nation; Nelson Mandela's exiled co-leader Oliver Tambo; Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Admitting Taiwan's leader was not a unique event.

Furthermore, China's long-term interests are not served if selling missiles to Pakistan goads India to increase its already worrisome nuclear capability.

All these items are in the realm of general persuasion. What about negotiating carrots? One involves China's desire to join the new World Trade Organization. Another is continuation of most favored nation (MFN) trade benefits in the US. One stick, conversely, is possible loss of MFN (renewal has been approved by President Clinton but not yet by Congress).

House Speaker Newt Gingrich is right to suggest that Congress continue MFN. Disrupting trade isn't going to help with any of the current conflicts. But Mr. Gingrich is premature in calling for quick recognition of Taiwan as a separate nation. In time that is likely to happen. In fact, the argument can be made that China in the long run may become the center of a commonwealth of Chinese-language states, like Taiwan, and of Overseas Chinese trading outposts - rather than a vast Chinese empire.

But that's the long run. The significant facts driving the current need for negotiation are:

* China's vast population and the possibility that any major economic recession could send millions emigrating to neighboring nations.

* China's rank as the fastest growing contributor of greenhouse gases and other atmosphere pollutants.

* China's large army in a region boasting 6 of the 10 largest armed forces in the world. Add to this the already mentioned weapons sale capabilities.

One - probably two - changings of the guard are coming in China. The first to some combination of old guard leaders. The second may be to a younger generation that must grapple with the giant issues mentioned above. Whatever its reaction to current affronts, Washington needs to stay in measured, calm contact with today's, tomorrow's, and the day after tomorrow's leaders in Beijing. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

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