Bush is ahead of the game on China

George W. Bush is a little slow on the uptake, some suggest. Others imply he is putty in the hands of hard-right foreign-policy advisers in the Pentagon and elsewhere when it comes to China policy. Both lines of attack are wrong.

The president already has put China policy into the main channel created by six preceding administrations. This is evident in his handling of the reconnaissance-plane incident, commitment to meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing this October, promotion of normal trade status and China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and the decision not to oppose Beijing's quest for the 2008 Olympics.

Even with respect to Taiwan, while his "do whatever it takes" defense statement in April grabbed attention, it was an attempt to deter Chinese coercion of Taiwan - not to change the structure that has maintained peace in the Taiwan Strait for three decades.

In contrast to this surefootedness, it took Ronald Reagan more than a year and a half to get into the main channel of China policy. Bill Clinton took 3-1/2 years. There are five reasons China policy has moved quickly into a familiar channel, despite a lack of consensus about China in the administration.

To start, many analysts of China policymaking treat President Bush as a passive bystander. In fact, Bush has a mind of his own on China; he articulated it in December 1999 debates with Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and others. His response to charges by Bauer was measured: "Our greatest export to the world has been, is, and always will be the incredible freedom we understand in America. And that's why it's important for us to trade with China, to encourage the growth of an entrepreneurial class."

Moreover, Bush won key electoral votes between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains - 99 electoral votes, or about 35 percent of his total. In another reply during the 1999 debates, he homed in on the interests of these states and agricultural interests elsewhere: "You're not for China getting into the WTO. I am. And let me tell you something: The amount of corn that'll be moved if China gets into WTO will rise ... to 7.2 million metric tons. Opening up Chinese markets is good for our farmers."

Further, there are mass electoral politics and public opinion. Several polls coincide with the results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center: "Most [Americans] see China as at least a serious problem, but only 1 in 5 call it an adversary... [T]he proportion who see China's emergence as a world power as a threat to the United States has not increased over the past two years."

It is hard to see how unnecessarily tangling with America's fourth-largest trade partner will help garner the public support Bush needs to win more popular votes in 2004. This is especially true when the domestic and world economies are sputtering and domestic economic performance is the key to electoral victory, as the first President Bush found in 1992.

And speaking of fights, if one picks a fight with China, one better have adequate financial resources. George W. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut has created a very hard budget constraint. If the Department of Defense were to direct significant resources in China's direction, would this not require reducing assets now dedicated to the still-turbulent Middle East and Balkans? Would this not elicit a Chinese response that would necessitate still-greater outlays?

This brings us to America's allies: They are all trying to improve relations with Beijing. A primary administration objective is to increase solidarity with allies in Asia and Europe. A policy that unnecessarily provokes Beijing will not win support from friends. Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told a Washington audience in June, "It makes no sense to mortgage East Asia's future by causing the Chinese people to conclude that its neighbors and the US want to keep them down."

More recently, mid-August remarks in Australia by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, somewhat misinterpreted, unleashed a firestorm of anxiety about Washington dragging Australia into conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait.

In short, we are seeing a president who is ahead of both predecessors and more strident subordinates. The latter group should get with the president's program.

David M. Lampton, director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and The Nixon Center, is the author of 'Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing US-China Relations 1989-2000' (University of California Press, 2001).

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