The US and China: a New Consensus

Stable relations are vulnerable to disruption by human rights abuses or other excesses by Beijing

At least temporarily, the United States and China have halted last spring's dangerous drift toward rivalry and acrimony. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Beijing this week. President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin meet in Manila next week, to be followed by a trip to Washington by the Chinese defense minister and exchanges at the presidential and vice presidential level next year.

A new and fragile consensus on China policy in Washington and among the American people permits this flurry of diplomatic activity. Rejecting the extremes of hostility to China or a warm embrace on Beijing's terms, the consensus - still in the process of formation - seeks cooperation with China while realistically accepting disagreements where values and interests diverge.

*The US should continue to adhere to the policy enunciated by President Nixon in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqu and endorsed by every president since then. It acknowledges the Chinese view that there is but one China, and Taiwan is part of it.

*China's growing role in world affairs is one of the major developments of our era. Our government must devote sustained attention to Sino-American relations, and policy must be coordinated at the highest levels. Frequent exchanges of view must occur with China's leaders.

*The US has an interest in a prosperous, stable, and unified mainland that is effectively and humanely governed. A strong, secure, and well-led China can contribute to global economic growth and the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, while a weak, divided, or isolated China would surely threaten the region's peace and prosperity.

*(The US should seek to work constructively with China to facilitate its entry, on mutually acceptable terms, into the international regimes that regulate and order world affairs. China will be more likely to adhere to international norms that it has helped to shape. But China's entry must not be permitted on terms that jeopardize the purpose of those regimes. Examples include the World Trade Organization, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the G-7 organization of industrial nations with China in the same status as Russia.

*The US is determined to retain a comprehensive, unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Americans feel moral obligations to the people of Taiwan and admire their economic and political progress. The Taiwan Relations Act appropriately governs America's relations with this thriving democracy. The past 25 years demonstrate that Taiwan flourishes best when relations between the US and China are sound. The overarching American interest is in a peaceful reconciliation of Taiwan and the mainland. Realistically, Taiwan can best secure a greater international voice and stature through cooperation with Beijing, not provocation of it.

*To attain all these objectives, the US must retain a robust military presence in the western Pacific. Effective multilateral security arrangements in East Asia may eventually supplement the bilateral treaties, but at present there is no substitute for the Japanese-American and Korean-American security treaties. These treaties are not directed against China. Rather they maintain stability, enhance the security of the entire region, and thereby deter an arms race or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the treaties enable current development of bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum.

*The US - especially the private sector - should cooperate with China in its efforts to develop institutions necessary for its continued modernization: a legal system and the rule of law; a strengthened judiciary; an effective banking and revenue system; a civil service system; strengthened representative assemblies; competitive, democratic elections of local officials; and a vibrant press. Many Chinese, including some in the Chinese government, favor these reforms because they are necessary to curb corruption, sustain economic growth, attract foreign investment, and promote stability and human rights.

*The US government must speak out firmly when the Chinese government violates universally accepted norms for protecting basic political and civil rights. Unilateral US economic sanctions on the Chinese government and people for human rights violations are counterproductive to the promotion of human rights in China and ill advised. The leaders of China must clearly understand, however, that egregious behavior in this area makes it difficult to generate political support in the US for constructive initiatives in other areas.

The recent stabilization of Sino-American relations and the prospects for improvement in the months ahead are very vulnerable to disruption by possible Chinese actions: mishandling of Hong Kong after its reversion from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997; arms sales that violate previous agreements; diversion of imported dual-use technologies from civilian to military use; flagrant human rights abuses; or inattention to a growing trade surplus with the United States.

Despite the challenges, the US has no realistic choice but to persist in its efforts to forge a constructive relationship with China. Too much is at stake not to do so. China has become a central concern of American foreign policy. In all the areas of crucial interest to the US, whether strategic, political, economic, or cultural, China is an increasingly important factor in determining whether the US can attain its objectives. And cooperation with the US is equally important for China.

Preventing dissemination of weapons of mass destruction; sustaining steady, nondisruptive growth of an open international economy; coping with the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union; maintaining peace and stability in Asia; averting global environmental degradation; and dealing with international terrorism, illegal migration, and narcotics trafficking - all these are concerns to both China and the US. Moreover, in all these areas, China's goals frequently overlap with American interests but partially depart from them, sometimes rather sharply. The task before the US and China is to broaden and strengthen the areas of cooperation while narrowing and containing the differences.

In the broadest sense, Beijing and Washington share an overriding interest: that the process through which China inevitably increases its influence globally and regionally should be peaceful, evolutionary, and responsive to the desires of the local populace. Under those circumstances, the US and China's neighbors will have less fear about the implications of China's rise. The challenge for both Washington and Beijing is to give vitality to this common long-term objective.

Enormous challenges exist in revitalizing Sino-American relations. Differences in wealth, cultures, political systems, and global responsibilities separate the US and China. Sino-American cooperation cannot assure success in addressing the most fundamental problems that threaten all humankind, but Sino-American animosity will surely make it difficult to cope with these issues. That is why resumption of Sino-American dialogue at the highest levels should be welcomed. And both sides should exert effort to build upon the new consensus.

*US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia is ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, and Michel Oksenberg is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Asia/Pacific Research Center.

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