Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, November 10, 1997
"It's a movie, not a snapshot," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger like to say when pleading for patience with their "strategy" of engagement with China. And apparently it's one of those movies in which nothing happens for a very, very long time.
Certainly nothing happened at last week's "historic" summit. A senior administration official told reporters after their meetings with the Chinese that "the general tone was intransigence. Friendly, cooperative-sounding intransigence." Long, painful negotiations on any number of issues -- from trade to human rights -- went nowhere. "After days and days and days," another official told the New York Times, "we have found it difficult to have even the most basic kinds of discussions with China." The administration professes to be pleased to have received ambiguous Chinese assurances that Beijing will stop violating its past assurances concerning its profligate proliferation of dangerous weapons and technologies to Iran. But for anyone not in thrall to the sacred tenets of engagement, the mere fact that these dubious assurances were the "centerpiece" of the summit is the surest sign that engagement with China is producing nothing -- at least for the United States. For the Chinese government, of course, engagement is working splendidly.
Clinton officials may be so wedded to their China policy that no amount of failure can force a re-evaluation. But there is reason to wonder whether the strategy of embracing China in the hope of eliciting better behavior can survive much longer without achieving any gains.
It certainly should come as no surprise that engagement isn't working the way the Clinton administration once hoped it would. Some leading China scholars, in candid moments, predicted as much. David Shambaugh, head of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University -- and a supporter of the administration's approach to China -- wrote last year that, " because of its domestic politics, China cannot and will not reciprocate the Western policy of 'engagement' because, on the one hand, the regime views it as a policy of subversion and, on the other, the costs of adapting to international rules and norms are too high." According to Shambaugh, the decisive fact is that China is a "dissatisfied and nonstatus quo power which seeks to change the existing international order and norms of inter-state relations." It does not want to be "integrated" into the U.S.-dominated international order; it does not want to accommodate itself to what the West considers international "norms." Rather, it wants to change the world to suit its own special needs as a powerful dictatorship on the rise.
Clinton officials have insisted they want to bring China into the international system and convince China's leaders that their interests lie in playing by the existing rules of the game. But Sinologist Kenneth Lieberthal has pointed out that "China wants the world to accept its 'Chinese characteristics' as part of the price of having the country join international councils." China "wants to be a rule setter and not just a rule accepter." Is it in America's interest to give way on this crucial point?
On some issues -- for instance, on the subject of trade -- the Clinton administration has so far been reluctant to let the Chinese rewrite the rules of the game. At the very least, the administration fears the angry reaction in Congress that such an accommodation might spark. The result, however, is that China is nowhere near meeting the requirements for entry into the World Trade Organization, even though the administration once hoped to bring China in this year.
But in other areas, the administration's resolve has been weak. Confronted by the prospect of having nothing substantial to show for last week's summit, for instance, the administration rushed into accepting Chinese assurances on nuclear non-proliferation so that the president could certify the Chinese as eligible to buy American nuclear-power plants. A more prudent approach would have put the Chinese on probation for six months or a year to see whether they would actually abide by their latest pledges, since their record of compliance in the past has been miserable. And on the subject of human rights, Clinton may have sparred with Jiang Zemin publicly, but privately it must have been clear to the Chinese that the United States was not demanding anything in the way of substantive progress -- not the release of a single dissident, not vague commitments to reform, not a promise to ease repression, even a little, in Tibet.
The administration's stated determination to hold the Chinese government to some reasonable standards of international and domestic behavior may weaken further in coming months. Clinton has announced he will go to China next year, but can he afford to hold another summit as devoid of progress as last week's? Some senior officials are already considering letting China make the rules on issues like trade and proliferation. Sandra Kristoff, the National Security Council's top Asia specialist, reportedly said at a meeting on Capitol Hill a few weeks ago that "a China that makes the rules will have a greater stake in enforcing them." Whether her theory is correct or not, if this became the official line, it would mark a subtle shift in the administration's definition of engagement. Until now, officials have not talked about letting China participate in making international rules.
But that is what the Chinese are holding out for, and they may well have left last week's summit believing that "intransigence" is their best strategy with a president who seems driven to accommodate them. Intransigence and, of course, big contracts for American firms. The Chinese have been playing the same game with Clinton for three years. In 1994, they harangued then- secretary of state Warren Christopher during his visit to Beijing and told him to keep his nose out of their affairs. Meanwhile, back in the United States, they dangled contracts before a dozen hungry American corporations. The result: a wholesale reversal of the administration's policy and the formal "delinkage" of trade and human rights. (Christopher, it is interesting to note, was the only recent secretary of state not in attendance at last week's state dinner.) This time, the Chinese came bearing huge gifts for Boeing and other corporate giants, piling the cash high on the tables while they stiffed administration officials in the negotiations. The Chinese believe they have Clinton's number. Are they wrong?
The fact is, the administration's present engagement strategy may fast be approaching a dead end. In the coming months, if China continues playing hard to get, Clinton will either have to stand firm and risk a disruption in U.S.- China relations or, if he finds that prospect unbearable, begin bending the rules on more and more issues in order to cut deals with the Chinese. "You must accept my terms," Bismarck once threatened in a heated negotiation with Austria's foreign minister. "If not," he continued, rising ominously from his chair, " -- then I must accept yours." This may be the only sense in which the Clinton administration's policy toward China can be described as Bismarckian. But that is not how the policy of engagement was sold to the American people, and it is unlikely to maintain their support for very long.
The Congress, meanwhile, is getting restive. Legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher Cox comes to the House floor this week with the support of the top Republican leadership, and most of the nine separate bills addressing various aspects of Chinese misbehavior are likely to pass. Next year, Clinton will probably be meeting with Jiang in Beijing before the annual congressional vote on renewing China's most-favored nation status. Another empty summit won't help the president win that battle either.
Looming over the horizon, of course, are more serious matters than the pas de deux of Sino-American summitry. China's geopolitical aspirations are clear enough. As David Shambaugh has put it, "Above all, China seeks to disperse global power and particularly to weaken the preponderant power of the United States in world affairs. . . . China's primary foreign policy goal today is to weaken American influence relatively and absolutely." The Clinton administration's strategy of engagement once purported to try to deal with this problem. Instead it is only making the problem worse.