Ever since Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, the US has tried to influence the development of that complex, communist country by connecting it with the US and the world, especially via trade. By now, China's well connected. So, what next?
That's a relevant question as President Bush prepares to meet with President Hu Jintao in Beijing this weekend. Mr. Bush is bringing a list of talking points as long as the Great Wall, including trade, currency, intellectual property rights, and religious freedom - perennial points of friction between the United States and the world's fastest growing economy.
But Mr. Bush also wants to address several issues that go beyond US-China relations. They include the war on terrorism as well as worrisome countries such as North Korea and Iran, which both present nuclear nonproliferation challenges. Energy is also on Bush's agenda. China's voracious appetite for petroleum drives up world oil prices. It also aligns China with oil-rich bad-boy countries such as Venezuela, Sudan, and Iran, whose human rights abuses or autocratic ways are immaterial to China.
In this broader set of issues lies the answer to the "what next" question - at least from the US point of view. According to a new policy thrust at the State Department, China needs to be encouraged to become more than merely connected to the international community - more than just a member of the UN Security Council or the World Trade Organization, for instance.
"It is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China's membership into the international system: We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system," said Robert Zoellick, deputy secretary of State, in a speech on US-China relations in September.
A responsible world citizen - that's a label that implies a more mature and democratically minded China, both at home and abroad. That would mean a China that won't hinder UN Security Council action on Sudan or Iran because it has oil interests there; one that will go beyond helping to broker a deal scrapping North Korea's nuclear weapons program to actually enforcing compliance; a China that will calm security fears in Asia by explaining its huge military buildup - including 730 missiles pointed at Taiwan compared to 500 last year.
To nudge China toward a role as a "responsible stakeholder" makes sense as a long-term American policy. But the jury's out on whether China will be a willing nudgee. Or whether Washington will be a persistent nudger, especially if Iraq stays front and center in US foreign policy, and if burning bilateral issues such as trade consume all the oxygen whenever representatives from both countries talk.
The appeal to China to become a better world citizen can't be made on altruistic grounds. If it's to have any hope of working, it must be pitched as being in China's own national interest - for instance, to preserve stable markets abroad and at home. Nuclear proliferation and terrorism threaten world stability, and by extension, China's markets.
What's behind the responsibility rhetoric is the desire to make sure that decades from now, this Asian giant is a peaceful power. Bush must not lose sight of this larger goal.