China Owes Us One

November 06, 1991

The United States has made a major concession to China in agreeing to have Secretary of State James A. Baker III visit Beijing later this month, the first formal high-level U.S. presence there since the June 1989 massacres in Tiananmen Square. Now China will have to reciprocate with conciliatory moves on human rights, trade and arms control if bilateral relations are to improve.

Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that the Bush administration would make this gesture if it did not have advance assurances that visible progress will be made. President Bush, a former U.S. envoy to China, has been severely criticized for keeping the door open to a country he believes is too large and too important to isolate. Barring a breakthrough, this could become an issue in the 1992 presidential election.

Although China has adhered to tough-worded rhetoric against what it calls outside interference in its internal affairs, it has made a number of cooperative moves to improve its image in world affairs. These include: its refusal to veto Security Council resolutions against Iraq, its support of the United Nations peace settlement on Cambodia, its decision to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its willingness to accept visits by human rights groups, its promise of cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and its release of a number of leading dissidents and their spouses.

Yet crucial violations of international codes remain: its shipment of nuclear equipment to Iran, its reckless export of ballistic missile technology, its trade barriers to protect internal markets and, most important, its continued jailing of dissidents and its harsh crackdown on any kind of dissent.

China defends its policies and its doctrinal adherence to Marxism on the ground that "the right to subsistence" is the most basic of human rights. What it means is that it does not want to go the way of the Soviet Union, conveniently overlooking the fact that the Chinese people enjoyed better access to basic consumer goods long before Soviet free-market reforms were attempted.

Nonetheless, China leads from weakness. Many of its brightest young people choose to live in exile. Its strategic importance has diminished with the economic success of Japan, Taiwan and Korea, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the U.S. as the world's only superpower.

We believe President Bush has followed the right course toward China, however unpopular it may be. But China now has to reciprocate in major ways if this policy is to be sustainable in terms of internal American politics.

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