An old Mandarin proverb about China states, "If you think you understand, you don't really understand." That warning sums up the challenges that face Americans in dealing with the "Middle Kingdom."
When viewed separately, each of the many policy aspects involving China - economic, political, military, and environmental - are difficult. However, taken together, we can see the interrelationships. For example, more open flows of trade and investment are likely to generate a higher living standard in China - but are also likely to enhance its ability to expand its military establishment, and to increase political tensions. Higher levels of output will generate more pollution as well.
A useful starting point is to note that China's isolation is ending. Today, it is more open to the influences of Western culture than ever before. Its senior officials say they want their country to be a full participant in the world economy. As a key Pacific power, we have a major stake in China moving out of its isolationist setting. It is to our benefit to encourage the rise of a China that interacts with, but is also at peace with, its neighbors.
China and the United States are complementary in terms of basic economic needs and resources. We are China's leading export market as well as the most logical partner to help upgrade its technology. In turn, China is the most promising new market for American business and agriculture.
China's distance from the West, however, is greater than a glance at the globe suggests. Central differences exist in historical experience, cultural orientation, and political and social institutions. Nevertheless, let us see how we can deal with the main issues that will either separate our two powerful nations or bring them closer.
Matters of war and peace are fundamental. The continued expansion of China's military power is potentially destabilizing. The sensible response, however, is not to try to talk Beijing out of what it thinks is a reasonable position. Instead, we should clearly note that, in terms of our vital interests, the expansion of China's armed strength justifies a substantial US military presence in East Asia. Yet a China that is secure from foreign threat and can protect its legitimate sovereignty is desirable for both Asian and American vital interests.
Likewise, the US remains the main bulwark of free flows of commerce and capital across the globe. Nevertheless, because we are a democracy, we respond to the concerns of our citizens as expressed in the political process. Thus, when Chinese officials dismiss these concerns as "just domestic politics," they demonstrate that they do not yet understand how a democracy works.
It is unrealistic for China to expect that we can maintain a fully open market in the face of the following adverse factors: a host of barriers to US exports to China, severe restraints on the operations of US firms in China, lack of a functioning legal system that protects individual liberty and property, and persecution of people that Americans identify with.
Americans hope that China continues to open up its economy and to achieve the freedoms to which the citizens of other advanced societies have grown accustomed. If it chooses not to, however, China will postpone the time when it gains full membership in the global marketplace and the family of modern societies. Clearly our preference is to welcome China into that desirable relationship sooner rather than later.
In developing closer relations with China, trade-offs are inevitable. While private organizations emphasizing single issues can take absolutist positions, it is foolish for governments to do so. Our government must balance concern for human rights against other important interests which also have significant moral aspects - peace, national security, and prosperity of our citizens.
The US maintains peaceful, friendly relations with many nations that do not share our fundamental values. But those relationships are not nearly as strong or as enduring. Closer economic and individual ties in turn can lead to improved mutual understanding - and vice versa. Thus, we should welcome the development of improved relations with China and further progress in the day-to-day interactions of our citizens.
* Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.