US-China Summit: Engaging a Giant
Clinton's challenge is to persuade China to work more closely with the world to resolve dangerous problems
The US-China summit of 1998 is primarily about spin, secondarily about substance.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.