Doing diplomacy with the dragon U.S.-China policy: Gore's visit gives both powers a chance to pursue their real interests.

March 25, 1997

CHINA BASHERS are an odd lot -- Cold Warriors in search of an enemy, labor unions pursuing a protectionist agenda, human-rights advocates fired by moral fervor, politicians seeking advantage in Washington's parochial struggles, think-tankers seeing traitorous intent in the overseas activities of big corporations, businessmen competitively threatened by low-cost imported goods, creative artists and inventors whose intellectual property is subject to piracy, pro-Taiwan enthusiasts who just celebrated Madame Chiang Kai-shek's 100th birthday.

With such a list of critics, it is no wonder that advocates of a positive engagement policy with China constantly find themselves in a Sisyphean situation -- constantly pushing that proverbial rock uphill only to have it roll down again. Much of their problem, of course, is rooted in Beijing itself, where a dictatorial regime constantly plays right into the hands of its American adversaries. But the United States is supposed to be a mature superpower capable of looking out for its own interests.

One of those interests, stretching back more than a century, is to insure that this country remains a dominant and stabilizing power in the far Pacific. Japan was the first nation to challenge this policy, and it took a war to persuade it otherwise. Now China is in a period of ascendancy, reclaiming its historic position as the "central kingdom" on the Asian mainland.

Perhaps the first part of wisdom for American diplomacy is to accept as a given that China cannot be isolated, ostracized, relegated or contained. It must be dealt with as the homeland of one-fourth of the world's population and the fastest-growing major economy.

Despite the distraction of the Clinton administration's diddling with Asian campaign contributors, Vice President Al Gore has a job to do in China this week that is more important than his personal ambitions for the White House. The task is to reassert American interest in restoring equilibrium to a relationship that has been gratuitously strained by the misadventures of both sides.

The vice president's appearance today when Boeing signs a contract to sell airliners to China would help. So would concrete moves by the Chinese regime to curtail a $40 billion trade imbalance that fuels protectionist sentiment in the U.S. With progress on trade, the two nations can then get down to the basic business of working out a Pacific security arrangement aimed quite simply at avoiding armed conflict. This will be a long-haul effort in which China bashing will be a dangerous indulgence.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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