Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, July 5/July 12, 1999

Slobodan Milosevic has lost the war in Kosovo, and his dictatorship of Yugoslavia may be headed (let's hope) for the dustbin of history. Now it's time for the United States to start paying serious attention to a far more dangerous dictatorship several thousand miles to the east, in Beijing. Sound like a geographical stretch? The Chinese obviously don't think so.

It turns out that the reason the Chinese were so upset about the accidental bombing of their embassy in Belgrade, and the reason they still refuse to believe it was an accident, is that American bombs hit what the New York Times describes as a Chinese "intelligence-gathering nerve-center" and killed two Chinese spies -- not "journalists." One can only guess what the Chinese were doing with this intelligence operation during the U.S. bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Maybe they were gathering information on the F-117 stealth aircraft the Serbs shot down. Almost certainly they were providing whatever assistance they could to help Milosevic beat the United States and NATO. This should come as no surprise. Milosevic also got help from Saddam Hussein and kept in close contact with the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi. That's the thing about the world's dictatorships. They stick together.

Most Americans learned the right lesson in the Kosovo conflict: Appeasement of dictators is a disastrous error. Even former U.S. Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke now admits that the Clinton administration "made numerous mistakes" in dealing with Milosevic. But can we apply this lesson when it comes to dealing with the Communist leaders in Beijing? Or will we have to wait for disaster to strike there, too, before some future administration official is forced to admit that the "engagement" policy of the Bush-Clinton years was mistaken?

The evidence of the Chinese government's hostile intentions, both with regard to its own people and to U.S. interests worldwide, is overwhelming. These proponents of engagement with China who claim that we should not be shocked by the revelations in the Cox committee report are partly right. Anyone who knows the Chinese dictators understands that they want to increase their military capabilities in order to achieve their ambition of intimidating U.S. allies and someday forcing the United States itself out of Asia. What is shocking, however, is this: This basic truth has so far barely dented the comfortable bipartisan consensus supporting the continued appeasement of Beijing.

In early June, President Clinton announced his intention to renew most-favored-nation status for China. When Congress votes on MFN in the next few weeks, will Republicans stand up and send at least a symbolic message that they will not accept business as usual with the Butchers of Beijing, any more than with the Butcher of Belgrade? Or will they fear losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in "soft money" from American corporations that do business in China? And never mind MFN -- the big American corporations that routinely lose money in China, and apparently can't wait to lose more, will also try to block the tightened export controls recommended by the Cox committee. Will Republicans have the nerve to place national security and national principle above trade?

It happens that the American people would support such an effort. A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows only 29 percent of Americans agreeing that the United States should grant "most-favored-nation" status to China, with 57 percent opposed. But wait a second. Advocates of engagement have succeeded in changing the term "most-favored-nation" status to the supposedly more salable "normal trade relations." It turns out the American people don't fall for the trick. Thirty-two percent say the United States should grant "normal trade relations" status to China, 54 percent say no. So that linguistic legerdemain picked up all of three points.

The U.S. victory in Kosovo came after many years of inattention to and appeasement of Milosevic's tyranny. Thankfully, the United States and NATO were so strong, and Milosevic so weak, that we could prevail even after what Holbrooke acknowledges to be the Clinton (and Bush) administrations' many mistakes. Our margin for error in the case of China is smaller. The longer we appease Beijing and pretend it is some kind of "strategic partner," refusing to acknowledge the reality that China is in fact a serious strategic competitor, the greater the chance that someday -- maybe soon, maybe a decade from now -- we will pay the price for our fecklessness. Holbrooke said last week in the Senate hearings for his confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "Had the United States responded vigorously and appropriately early in the [Balkan] crisis, we might have avoided three of the four wars that the Belgrade dictatorship has caused." The best way to avoid a future crisis with China is not to appease it, but to respond "vigorously and appropriately" while there's still time to check Beijing's ambitions, preserve the peace, and strengthen the forces of reform in China.