Robert Kagan and William Kristol

Reprinted with permission of the New York Times, June 22, 1998

In defending his China policy, President Clinton says American faces a stark choice: engage China as his Administration has done or isolate it. But that is a false choice.

No one, contrary to the President’s recent assertion, is "seeking to isolate China." For example, the Administration’s critics do not oppose any summit that advances America’s overall strategic and moral interests. The problem with Mr. Clinton’s policy is that it undermines those interests, because his brand of engagement is failing.

The Administration has argued, for instance, that giving satellites, supercomputers and other technology to China would encourage it to stop selling weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. But in the last six months, China has been caught peddling nuclear-weapons-related material to Iran. And in recent years, China made missile and nuclear weapons technology available to Pakistan, inviting India’s nuclear test.

The Clinton Administration has argued that once the United States stopped challenging China’s human rights record and withdrew the threat of economic sanctions, China would ease repression at home. In fact, the Chinese government has responded by exiling a couple of prominent dissidents and arresting many others - in sum, by maintaining one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

The Administration says its brand of engagement has fostered stability in Asia. Why, then, has China fired missile off the coast of Taiwan, seized islands in the South China Sea and continued to increase its defense spending at an alarming rate?

Finally, to avoid offending Chinese sensibilities, the White House invents excuses for indefensible practices like forced abortion and religious repression. The Administration has always argued that its policy of engagement will make China more like us. In fact, it is making us more like them.

Last year, when it was reported that the Chinese government tried to subvert American elections, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared there would be grave consequences if the story was substantiated. It was, but there have been no consequences. If any country other than China were involved, the summit would be postponed. But the President is keeping his appointment in Beijing. Indeed he pretends he has no choice but to be greeted at Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Clinton now describes our relationship with China as a "strategic partnership" and insists China responds best to incentives. But placating its Government at every turn is not the answer. The Chinese leadership must know that when it breaks its promises - by aiding Pakistan’s and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs - it will be punished with sanctions, including, for instance, cutting off trade with corporations known to be controlled by China’s military. A year ago, in a memorandum to the State Department, Mr. Clinton’s own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency pointed out: "The only time we have gotten movement from the Chinese on missile proliferation has been in the face of a penalty being imposed. Carrots have gotten us nothing."

The United States must make it clear in both word and deed that we will contain China’s strategic ambitions. We should begin by reversing the decline in our military strength. Chinese leaders interpret America’s shrinking defense budget and our uncertain response to crises in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere as a sign of weakening resolve. Nor could it have escaped the notice of Beijing that when the President sent aircraft carriers to the gulf earlier this year, none were left in the East Asian theater.

Beijing evidently hopes to drive a wedge between the United States and its Asian allies. That is why the Chinese government insisted that President Clinton not visit Japan, South Korea and Taiwan before or after the summit. But they are our true strategic partners in Asia and deserve the reassurance of a visit by an American President.

Mr. Clinton seems determined to cast his critics as backward-looking isolationists spooling for a new cold war. In fact, the Clinton Administration’s current policy invites Chinese adventurism abroad and repression at home. At the end of this bloody century, we all should have learned that appeasement, even when disguised as engagement, doesn’t work.