New Policy on China: Usefully Incoherent

TWENTY years after Richard Nixon's trip to Beijing, many people believe that United States policy toward China is in disarray. The bipartisan consensus established in 1972 has broken down. Congressional Democrats push for a hard line to pressure the Chinese communists to change their ways. The president resists and calls for a softer line to nudge Beijing in the right direction. The result, since 1989, has been an intermittent struggle between the White House and Capitol Hill that sends mixed signals to Beijing. This is not necessarily bad. A little incoherence in China policy is what the situation demands.

At the time of President Nixon's visit, China and the US had a common interest in resisting the threat posed by Soviet military might. But by the mid-1980s, with the cold war winding down, the old containment payoff lost its importance. In the absence of a strategic interest in cooperation, conflicts were no longer easily overlooked. Ever since the tragic events of 1989, the two sides have clashed over issues they see in starkly different ways: human rights, economic policy, arms sales, and the future of


Under these circumstances, the question arises of what China policy best serves the US interest in promoting human rights, fair economic relations, and responsible international conduct.

Some argue for a hard line, threatening economic or diplomatic sanctions if the leadership in Beijing does not yield to American demands. This would require the insecure, factionalized Chinese communists to knuckle under publicly to US pressure, something they will not do. Nevertheless, congressional threats may still dissuade the Chinese leadership from acting in ways Americans deem unacceptable. Compliance with dissuasive threats requires no humiliating visible change in behavior. By boldly warning Bei jing leaders of the consequences of their future actions, Congress may be able to dissuade them from using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, resuming large-scale political arrests, recklessly marketing nuclear technology, and crudely forcing the issue of Taiwan's reunification.

OTHER proponents, including the Bush administration and many in the private sector who deal with China, argue for a softer line that relies on carrots rather than sticks. This approach - engaging Chinese leaders at the highest levels and encouraging China's integration into the world economy - assumes that time is on our side. It also assumes that the forces of change, within the communist elite and in society as a whole, are nurtured by continued American involvement. It also properly tries to avoid pun ishing the Chinese people for the policies of a government they did not freely choose.

But this policy neither demands nor promises dramatic changes from the leadership in Beijing. By itself, the policy lacks credible threats to use as pressure against Beijing, which may convince the communist leadership that it faces little more than a tongue-lashing when it violates American sensibilities.

Neither the hard nor soft line is ideal. One would like to combine the strengths of each. Fortuitously perhaps, the much maligned foreign-policy process in our democracy is making this possible. Congress threatens to punish the Chinese communists for their objectionable policies and passes resolutions. The president avoids a counterproductive confrontation by vetoing them. Congress votes to override and falls just short. In the end, the mixed message to Beijing is clear: The door remains open, but negati ve actions will have consequences, and there is not much room for error. Anyone who heard the words of Chinese officials last spring, when Congress was considering renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status, knows just how well the communist leadership understands the situation.

Until there is some dramatic change in the international arena or within China that warrants reconsideration, the current two-track approach is correct. The best China policy for the US in 1992 is one that combines a presidential commitment to constructive engagement with a congressional sword of Damocles.

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