Beijing on the Back Burner

November 22, 1991

In welcoming Secretary of State James Baker's just-completed trip to China, this newspaper said "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." Well, the inconceivable has become conceivable. The visit has ended with only minimum gains in arms control and a jolting setback on human rights. Even the spin doctors in the White House confess to disappointment.

All this is testimony to something very old and something very new. What is old is the chronic inability of American and Chinese leaders to understand one another, the latest manifestation being President Bush's exaggerated view of his personal clout in Beijing and China's underestimation of American anger about Tiananmen Square. What is new is the disappearance of a credible Soviet threat as the glue in the Sino-American side of superpower triangular diplomacy.

China and America are too big and too powerful to ignore or isolate one another. But neither do they need one another as they did when Russian troops and missiles were poised for action along the Iron Curtain and the Soviet-Chinese border.

In retrospect, it seems clear Mr. Baker should never have gone to China unless he knew for sure he would have something to show for it. The danger now is that his trip's failure will encourage the curious alliance in Congress of human rights liberals and anti-Communist conservatives to pull the plug on normal trading relations with China. The emphasis should be on normal because the issue is clothed in the misnomer of "Most Favored Nation" or MFN trading rules.

To the extent that China can be lured into responsible international behavior, as contrasted with its reckless export of the instruments of mass destruction to rogue/radial regimes; to the extent that China can be encouraged to abandon its piracy of U.S. copyrights and patents and its protectionist trade practices; to the extent that its rigid leadership can be prodded to accept diversity and dissidence and even democracy -- to the extent any of these things can happen, the United States should welcome them as signs of normality. Nothing more. Nothing special. Nothing exotic. Nothing sentimental. Just normality.

Americans must be patient. They should neither expect too much nor pressure too much. The Chinese preoccupation with not losing face or succumbing to Western influences is manifested by an aversion to demands for concessions or condescension on the part of foreigners. So the United States should back off. It should neither punish by ending normal trading relations nor indulge with naive attempts at reconciliation.

In time, younger leaders less fearful of modernity will take power in Beijing. They are more likely to accept the powerful thrust of market forces driving the economies of the coastal provinces than the dictates of a discredited Marxist-Maoist ideology.

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