Strange Bedfellow

The Cure for Sinophobia

Just follow these seven steps.

Trying to make sense of U.S.-China relations these days can reduce even the most resolute Sinologist to a blubbering wreck. At the moment, Washington and Beijing are pummeling each other over: the Chinese Embassy bombing, the Chinese espionage detailed in the Cox report, American technology export policies, the renewal of China’s normal trade (formerly most favored nation) status, China’s application to join the World Trade Organization, American support for Taiwanese democracy, American sympathy for the Dalai Lama, the burgeoning military alliance between the United States and Japan, China’s friendship with North Korea, China’s wavering endorsement of nuclear nonproliferation, China’s persecution of democrats, China’s persecution of Christians, and China’s surging anti-Americanism.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that today is the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Happy anniversary!

The China question has produced a kind of mass hysteria in the United States. The extremes–Sino-apologists and China bashers–have kidnapped China policy. Business interests insist that our economic partnership with China trumps all else. Many conservatives, meanwhile, are screaming for a Cold War, demanding that we confront the new Evil Empire before it grows too mighty. (This conservative opposition continues a long and deplorable trend, described by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg last year in ” Republicans, Democrats, and China“: The party out of presidential power inevitably accuses the ruling party of being soft on China, but then adopts the same accommodationist policies as soon as it wins the Oval Office.) And the lobbies for the Christian right, Tibet, human rights, and labor demand that we break with China until it stops: persecuting Christians, destroying Tibet, oppressing dissidents, and mistreating workers.

So what’s a poor American to think? Here are seven paths to wisdom for U.S. China policy.

1.Disaggregate: American interest groups want to hold China policy hostage to their pet issues–security, democracy, Tibet, trade, etc. They are monochromatic: Democracy advocates judge China on its worst behavior toward dissidents and ignore any good behavior, while business apologists applaud China’s dynamism and don’t notice repression, espionage, etc. Any reasonable China policy must separate issues of agreement and disagreement. China and the United States can cooperate on trade, but we’ll never make common cause on Tibet. So our policy needs firewalls: The American business community shouldn’t be able to force the United States to cave on human rights just to improve economic ties. Nor should human rights advocates be allowed to make trade agreements contingent on Chinese kindness toward dissidents. Until the United States can disaggregate, its entire China policy will be held hostage to the most contentious issue of the moment.

2. Don’t criticize without offering a sensible alternative: A key reason for our mangled China policy is that China hawks endlessly indict U.S. policy without proposing their own remedy. In the New York Times last week, columnist Thomas Friedman whacked the China bashers for their belligerent carping over the Cox report: “Where exactly do you guys think you are going with this? … Do you want to declare war on China? Is that what you want?” The China bashers slam Clinton’s economic coziness with China, but they’re mum about what they would do instead: They don’t want a trade war, either. Other Americans preach for Taiwanese independence, but then refuse to say whether Taiwan is worth fighting for.

3.Stop seeing China as the Soviet Union: Unlike the U.S.S.R., China is not expansionist, not interested in exporting communism (and hardly interested in keeping the communism it’s got), and incredibly keen about joining the world economy. This is not the Cold War. China is not the implacable enemy that the Soviet Union was, and we should not treat it that way. We can do business with China. On the other hand …

4. Don’t help China become a superpower: China may not be the Soviet Union, but it’s not Great Britain either. China wants to build sophisticated weapons and dethrone the United States as Asia’s dominant military power. We don’t have to help it. The United States should limit technology transfers, increase spying on Beijing, strengthen our military alliances with China’s neighbors (notably Japan and Korea), and stall China’s weapons development as much as we peaceably can.

5. Take the long view: U.S. policy wobbles because it is always responding to the crisis du jour–the Cox report, WTO, the latest suppression of dissidents, etc. But U.S.-China relations are better considered over a span of many years. On democracy, for example, American activists are raging over China’s recent suppression of all democratic dissent. This suppression is an outrage, but our policy must be more sophisticated than mere indignation. Compare 1999 China with 1979 China: 1999 China permits vast economic freedom, sponsors competitive village elections, allows the establishment of nongovernmental organizations, tolerates environmental and women’s rights activism, and is starting to develop a reliable legal system. This is certainly not democracy, but it’s not totalitarianism either. Catharin Dalpino, former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, notes that Taiwan took the same preliminary steps on its path to democracy. (Of course, taking the long view on democracy also requires taking the longer view. China may have improved since 1979, but it still has an unblemished history of authoritarianism, five millenniums without sustained democracy.)

6. Worry a lot about Taiwan: Amid all the fretting about normal trade status, WTO, espionage, and Tibet, we tend to overlook Taiwan. This is worrisome, because Taiwan is by far the hottest issue between the United States and China. “There is an increased sense of desperation in China about Taiwan. We can stumble into a war with China over Taiwan very easily,” warns Professor David Shambaugh of George Washington University. Chinese leaders are fretting about Taiwan’s prosperous democracy and its flirtation with independence. They are also irked by U.S. military support for Taiwan–especially the U.S. plan to deploy a Theater Missile Defense for Taiwan in the next few years. Keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait must be the United States’ top China priority. It will require immense prudence: The United States must nurture a democratic Taiwan while discouraging a declaration of independence, must arm Taiwan against Chinese invasion while promoting closer Sino-Taiwanese ties.

7.And, finally, don’t be so melodramatic: Our relations with China are messy partly because we worry too much about them. “We have never been able to look at China like we would look at Brazil or India. We are always swept up in some idealized notion of what China is or should be,” says Brookings Institution scholar Bates Gill. “On day-to-day issues, we have never learned to have normal reactions. China is not 10 feet tall.” Yes, China is an emerging power and, yes, China may be the great American rival of the next century, but Americans have transformed China into an otherworldly nation, a mysterious angel, a baffling demon.

Here a historical analogy is illuminating: Only a decade ago, after all, America was frantic about another mysterious, ominous Asian power that was not quite friend, not quite enemy. This nation, too, seemed antagonistic toward America and bent on global domination. Today, Japan is more like America’s kid brother than a mortal threat. China, too, is just a nation like any other, with ambitions and fears, strengths and weaknesses. And until we recognize that, U.S.-China policy will be more fraught than it should be.