US-China Summit: Engaging a Giant

Clinton's challenge is to persuade China to work more closely with the world to resolve dangerous problems

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The US-China summit of 1998 is primarily about spin, secondarily about substance.

Relations between the two nations in President Clinton's first term were very bad, capped off by an ugly war-scare between the two sides in the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996.

Both sides now clearly realize they have to first stabilize and then improve their relationship. They have to sell this to doubting constituencies on both sides. Some "wag the dog" type spinmeistering is the way to do it.

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The US helped enormously to make President Jiang Zemin look good to his home audience during his US visit last November. He was depicted as the man who could handle the Americans. Mr. Jiang now owes Mr. Clinton one. The Chinese, unfortunately, are tougher bargainers than the Clinton team of neophytes.

Yes, Clinton can eat a little crow at Tiananmen Square and then say it tastes like diced chicken. But in return, the Chinese have to give him a human rights platform for direct play into the US at Beijing University. He also gets a town hall meeting with the Chinese with planted questions in cosmopolitan Shanghai. The Chinese audience may not get the full thrust of his muscular rhetoric on human rights but, more important to Clinton, the US audience will.

Underneath all this time-consuming froufrou is the fact that power, used skillfully, can carry the day, not smarmy rhetoric. There are deadly serious matters these two world leaders have to address.

China needs to be treated with civility, but not with condescension or appeasement. Maoism is an anachronism, and America is on the right side of history - the Chinese leadership knows it. But Clinton, whose diplomatic team lacks the luck and vision of a Henry Kissinger, must handle this delicately.

The US Beijing Embassy's ill-conceived advice to hurry Clinton's trip was approved without considering the serious domestic fallout from tempests over the questions of dubious campaign funding possibly from Chinese military sources, illegal technology transfer to the Chinese, and the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Economic meltdown is top issue

At the top of the list of serious issues is the Asian economic meltdown. US and China are both big players. The Chinese have acted relatively responsibly by not depreciating their currency - something Clinton's people gratuitously seized on, saying they would push on the trip for China not to depreciate its currency, as if China hadn't already committed to that course.

But the Chinese have cleverly tried to put the blame for the Asian economic crisis squarely on the Japanese, and the Clinton team seems to have also joined them in the anti-Japanese assault.

The Chinese keep bashing the Japanese on a wide range of emotional issues. Like a new Japanese movie on the Japanese war criminal Tojo, who is reviled by the Chinese for his treatment of them in World War II and is depicted in the movie as a kindly grandfather, not a ravenous warlord.

The Chinese relentlessly hammer on the memory of the Nanking massacre of 1937 in which thousands of Chinese were murdered by invading Japanese. But they conveniently ignore their own murderous Great Leap Forward of 1959 which killed a hundred times more Chinese as a result of Chairman Mao's lunatic social engineering.

The Chinese have told Clinton they don't want him to stop over in Japan during his historic trip to China. Clinton's team acquiesced, despite the US alliance with Japan. But, the Clinton team did wisely decide not to go to Nanking for an orgy of Japanese bashing.

Two other issues which should be on the top of the summit list are: North Korea's economic catastrophe and its military belligerence, and the explosive hostility between India and Pakistan, which is now compounded by nuclear weapons.

China did help Pakistan build its nuclear weapons capability and has also grabbed a large chunk of contested territory from India on the border of Kashmir. China has a serious obligation in this and needs to become more balanced and creative if there is to be a chance to solve this dangerous confrontation in South Asia. This will be a tough challenge for Clinton but it can be done under the rubric of "strategic partnership." The Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan by a coalition of forces including China, the US, and Pakistan, with India's tacit agreement. So cooperation is not a totally alien concept.

North Korea has unfortunately gotten the wrong message from the US-contrived generosity in its agreed framework on nuclear cooperation. In this framework, the US and its allies will pay big money to get North Korea to cap its known nuclear program even though it will not allow challenge inspections of its suspected secret one. Now, North Korea wants to be bought off again for not exporting long-range advanced missiles. Meanwhile, Chinese aid in food and oil keeps North Korea afloat.

China now needs to use its considerable leverage to help get North Korea to reform its broken-down socialist economy, stop threatening war to get concessions from the US, and stop playing games with export of weapons of mass destruction. China is as close as "lips to teeth" with North Korea, as they are so fond of saying. Now let them talk turkey on stopping war threats and giving North Koreans a better life through reform, not unconditional presents.

China needs to decrease its unilateralism and become a real team player, or millions of starving Koreans will land on their doorstep.

This is Clinton's challenge: to use his considerable persuasive power to induce the Chinese to work more closely with all of us to resolve these difficult and dangerous problems.

Pushing China on Taiwan

China and Taiwan have been two stalwarts of stability in the current Asian economic crisis. But China has publicly refused to work together with Taiwan based on "sacred sovereignty." Clinton could point out the weakness in this Chinese position and the deleterious effect on all of Asia.

But he also needs to understand the inherent contradictions in US policy toward China and Taiwan. Contradictions aren't evil, but an essential element of dealing with the Chinese.

Clinton can expect the Chinese leaders to push him on Taiwan. Jiang's own rhetoric and his domestic constituency, which has the nationalist bug, oblige him to deliver a propaganda lecture just as Clinton's domestic constituency obliges him to posture on human rights.

The reality is that China and Taiwan are managing their relationship well: On the surface they spat, they castigate each other, and each tries to get the US on its side. But after all is said and done, they go out and make money, for the most part together: Current Taiwan investment in China is close to $20 billion and cumulative trade between the two is even higher.

US team doesn't have to grovel

There are potentially dangerous problems if the US relationship with China and Taiwan is mismanaged - something Clinton and Jiang discovered in earlier years. Now, hopefully, both China and the US have sobered up, and Taiwan with its flourishing economy, hi-tech achievements, and sometimes chaotic democracy will be a positive contributor to a stable, triangular relationship. Our commitments to Taiwan will not change despite constant Chinese pressure, so it is best to resolve disputes gradually and peacefully.

Clinton's team ought to remember that on this summit, it is in the Chinese interest to make Clinton look good and that the US team doesn't have to grovel to get this.

Clinton doesn't have to overcompensate for his earlier mistakes on China: Linking most favored nation trade status to human rights, bungling the Taiwan president's visit to the US, obfuscating and dissembling on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

He should push ahead on the new agenda reached during Jiang's 1997 visit. Progress, not breakthroughs, is the real test.

China needs stability so it can focus on its huge problems of economic development. The US is key in achieving this Chinese objective. Clinton should be sensitive to, but not sidetracked by, China's gong-banging stridency on issues of sovereignty which could involve military confrontation. And Clinton's team should not play games using unofficial cohorts to meddle in the complexities of what are strictly issues between China and Taiwan.

There are lots of Chinese who want gradual political liberalization, and there are also the tough old reactionaries who don't. To deal cavalierly with the chauvinistic forces in China by pushing a cozy military-to-military relationship seems premature and unwise at this stage, given the uncertainties about Chinese intentions in modernizing its military, and its seemingly clumsy attempts to seduce our technocrats and involve itself in our domestic political processes.

Clinton has a strong hand as he goes to China. He needs to play it well, certainly better than he has in the past. Getting a photo-op with his arm around a terra cotta warrior will not do the trick.

* James R. Lilley was the US ambassador to the People's Republic of China from 1989 to 1991 and the US ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1986 to 1989. He is now resident fellow of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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