Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen's visit here last week went reasonably smoothly, but a key question remains: What will US policy toward China be?
During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell called China neither a strategic partner nor an implacable foe - but the administration has yet to clarify what it thinks China is.
This leaves a vacuum to be filled by news events: China has announced a significant defense budget increase. Its foreign minister has warned of serious consequences associated with US arms sales to Taiwan. There is news of another Chinese missile base capable of targeting that island. And press coverage of Vice Premier Qian's visit was dominated by China's repugnant treatment of a young American citizen whose mother has been detained by Chinese officials.
These events can provoke our ire or tug our heartstrings, but reacting to them does not a China policy make. The United States must prevent single issues from dominating the bilateral agenda. Both countries must recognize that it is difficult to move past inflammatory rhetoric and should speak in moderate tones.
Although there is a personal connection between the Chinese ambassador here, Yang Jiechi, and former President Bush - a relationship that dates back to the 1970s - more than cordial relations between the president's family and the ambassador is needed. The list of agenda items does not look promising.
American emphasis on China's human rights conditions rubs Beijing the wrong way. China recently released a report, "US Human Rights Record in 2000," attacking the "myth" of American democracy. Furthermore, the US decision to campaign for a resolution in Geneva condemning China's human rights practices makes US partners elsewhere uneasy. The Bush administration may be on the verge of adopting the previous administration's approach, which ended up isolating not China but the US on human rights.
The Bush administration should allow other actors to focus on human rights. Congress and various nongovernmental organizations can be more effective at highlighting abuses over a sustained period, while the executive branch should not push on human rights at the expense of other bilateral issues. The question is whether pressuring China on human rights in Geneva is an ad hoc policy decision or part of a coordinated strategy for developing US-China relations. The distinction is a fundamental one for an administration with limited capital to spend on the relationship.
The Bush administration will face decisions next month over whether to sell arms to Taiwan. China will push for limits on sales, and Washington will want to proceed, if only to demonstrate that Beijing cannot bully the US. The question of how arms sales advance US interests must be addressed before making the decision.
Selling Aegis destroyers to Taiwan may in fact promote US interests by offsetting recent Chinese missile deployments. But the rules of the road for building relations with China must be laid out first.
China's seemingly unstable domestic environment further complicates the task of developing the relationship. Political maneuvering in anticipation of President Jiang Zemin's succession next year, the crackdown on the Falun Gong sect, and a tendency to overreact vis-a-vis Taiwan make China a potentially difficult interlocutor for the new administration, which has yet to name a single China hand to a senior position.
American interests cannot be sacrificed to please China. But provoking Beijing on issues where we must agree to disagree is counterproductive. President Bush's assurances to Vice Premier Qian that the US wants cooperative relations may have a short-term, salutary effect, but do not add up to a coherent China policy.
The US-China relationship must mature to allow thoughtful discussion of difficult issues. This can only happen with promotion of honest, consistent high-level discussions cutting through the rhetoric and making both countries' bottom lines easier to discern.
In his confirmation testimony, Secretary Powell raised expectations that the Bush administration would replace the Clinton administration's much ballyhooed policy of "strategic engagement" with a more realistic approach to China. The new administration must not allow this complex bilateral relationship to be reduced to reflexive responses in a strategic vacuum rapidly filling with bad news. Even for the capable foreign policy experts of the Bush administration, China poses a tremendous challenge.
Patrick Cronin is director of research and studies at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Emily Metzgar is a program officer at the institute. The views represented here are their own.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor