RECENT conversations in China with senior leaders convinced us that US-China relations probably have not yet hit bottom. Policymakers in both countries are paralyzed over who can (or should) take the ``next step'' to break the impasse. China's leaders appear to lack the will to alter current policy, and fear that the moves Washington calls for would undermine their hold on power. President Bush nearly has run out of political capital to sustain the effort unilaterally. For the immediate future, this is a tragedy for American interests and values, as well as for the Chinese people.
Nonetheless, we remain optimistic about the necessity of good US-China relations in the longer term.
From Washington's viewpoint, moves by Beijing that indicate less political repression, more openness, renewal of genuine economic and political reform, and less anti-US rhetoric are essential. From Beijing's perspective, Washington must lift its economic sanctions and cease injecting itself into China's internal affairs.
Beijing's leaders have not made sufficient moves because:
They are locked in a succession struggle in which flexibility toward foreigners is portrayed internally as weakness.
Making the concessions Washington wants provides the regime's domestic critics with evidence that the current power holders have gravely mismanaged a national crisis.
China's leaders disagree about economic policy and the relationship between economic and political reform.
The social fallout from last June's violence, subsequent repression, and large-scale unemployment brought about by economic retrenchment have created a volatile situation.
Against this turbulent background, the bloody December dispatch of the Ceausescus in Romania made the personal costs of failure abundantly clear to China's rulers.
On the American side, President Bush has expended an enormous sum of political capital on his China initiatives: the Boeing aircraft sales, the Scowcroft/Eagleburger trips, the authorization for continued Export-Import Bank activity in China, and his barely sustained veto of the Pelosi Bill pertaining to Chinese students in America.
Further, the president and Congress face a staggering agenda of other foreign policy issues and opportunities. These include building a new security and economic structure in Europe, helping fledgling democracies in Latin America, and reassessing our global military presence. It is hard to justify spending more political capital in a quest for an adequate response from Beijing.
Although US-China relations remain deadlocked, issues cascade upon the relationship. The president must soon recommend renewal of China's most favored nation treatment. Congress is likely to give the measure intense scrutiny, given China's mounting trade surplus with the United States, projected to be near $10 billion this year. Moreover, Congress will be considering a variety of other proposals that will affect China's interests - immigration quotas for Hong Kong, for example, and funding for international organizations with active programs in China.
On the international scene, Taiwan could gain entry to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (presumably with Washington's concurrence) before the People's Republic itself. However these issues are resolved, the inevitable congressional and media debates will further aggravate relations.
Beijing's response will promote neither external accommodation nor internal liberalization. As one Chinese interlocutor put it in a recent meeting, when China is pressured by foreigners it becomes ``a piece of rock, not a piece of bean curd.''
Americans have four sets of interests in encouraging as much openness in China as possible and in maintaining as many substantive relations with Beijing as feasible.
First, from a human rights perspective, it has been engagement with China that contributed to the changes of the late 1970s and 1980s which Americans applaud. Now is the time for more engagement, not less.
Second, resolution of the Cambodian nightmare - not to mention dangers on the Korean peninsula - require Chinese cooperation.
Third, China still represents a generally expanding market to our Japanese and European competitors.
Finally, there are few major global environmental or economic issues which can't be effectively addressed without Beijing's cooperation.
We react with surprise to those who genuinely espouse human rights, global ecological and development concerns, and peaceful resolution of international disputes while promoting a set of punitive, and largely symbolic, responses to Beijing's actions. The predictable response from Beijing will further retard the achievement of their worthy objectives.