Dual approach to China

April 07, 1999|By Michael Mandelbaum

CHINESE Prime Minister Zhu Rongji arrived in the United States yesterday to find himself in a country only temporarily distracted by the war in Kosovo from a vigorous debate about the American approach to China.

The debate is a version of the joke about the two men who take their dispute to a judge. The first presents his case and the judge says, "You're right." The second then presents his case and the judge again says, "You're right."

"But your honor," the first man says, "we can't both be right," to which the judge replies, "you're right."

In the China debate, however, the two opposing sides, those who advocate a tough American policy to contain China even as the Soviet Union was contained during the Cold War, and those who support cooperative engagement with China in as many ways as possible, are in fact both right.

The appropriate American policy is neither a stark choice between confrontation and engagement nor a compromise between them, but rather both of them simultaneously.

The containment advocates are right that China remains, in political terms, a communist dictatorship permitting no independent political activity and severely punishing political dissidents. But the engagement defenders are also right that China has moved very far from the totalitarian oppression of the Maoist era.

Personal freedom

The Chinese people have considerable personal, although not political, freedom. China is sliding into a kind of federalism, with regional and local Communist officials enjoying substantial administrative leeway. Elections at the village level offer voters real but very narrow choices.

Here the appropriate American policy is to condemn the Communist monopoly of power and the regime's human-rights violations while at the same time noting, praising and encouraging the expansion of the freedoms the Chinese people do have.

In foreign policy, the containment advocates are right to warn against the aggressive Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea and especially against Chinese hostility toward Taiwan.

The Communist regime claims Taiwan is a province of China, but it actually enjoys de facto independence and is home to the first democratically elected government in the long history of Chinese civilization. Those who favor engagement point out that, unlike the old Soviet Union, China has not devoted itself single-mindedly to amassing military might and that the United States has never recognized a Taiwanese right to formal independence.

The appropriate American policy is thus one that combines vigilance on the transfer of militarily useful technology to China with a determination not to allow Beijing to conquer Taiwan. It should also encompass a willingness to expand commerce in nonmilitary sectors and a clear warning to Taiwan that the United States will not support a declaration of independence.

The containment advocates' critique of China's economic policies is on the mark. There are too many controls, too large a role for the Communist Party, as well as too much capital and too many workers tied up in large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises.

Free market reforms

But the engagement defenders' emphasis on the free-market reforms that have been implemented over the last two decades is also justified. Private agriculture, free enterprise zones along the coast and increasing openness to the world have made China's economy far freer and more productive than it was during the Maoist era.

Washington should therefore not try to restrain trade with or keep American business out of China, but neither should it permit Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization until Beijing makes a maximal effort to bring Chinese practices into conformity with the world's trading rules.

A two-track American approach to China, one that may sometimes appear to be contradictory, is appropriate because different and sometimes contradictory trends are at work in Chinese politics, economics and foreign policy. China is a country undergoing change that is both rapid and sweeping. Their consequences cannot be predicted and are by no means guaranteed to be benign. The best American policy toward the world's most populous country is one of simultaneously encouraging the best while hedging all bets against the worst.

Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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