The United States has done much to enable China's recent growth, but it has also sent mixed signals that have unnerved Beijing. More consistent engagement is in order, because the course of the twenty-first century will be determined by the relationship between the world's greatest power and the world's greatest emerging power.
While the past decade of Sino-American relations has been largely constructive, the ten years have not been on a steady incline. Rather, there have been two strong forward spurts, from spring 1971 through May 1973, and from May 1978 through early 1980. The relationship has also endured two periods of some acrimony and erosion: from the fall of 1975 to late 1976 and from mid-1980 to the effort to stabilize the relationship reflected in the communiqué on arms sales to Taiwan that was agreed in August 1982. In addition to the periods of rapid forward movement and retrogression, several periods are best portrayed through metaphors such as "plateaus" or "mixed pictures." Even the best periods were punctuated by moments of doubt and uncertainty, while the phases of deterioration were constrained by a common desire to limit the erosion and to preserve a more positive public facade than the private exchanges warranted.
Critics of the Clinton administration's engagement policy toward China are largely unaware of the last two decades' profound political changes in the Middle Kingdom. Deng Xiaoping received his due for his economic reforms, but not for the kinder, gentler politics that helped reduce elite backstabbing, broaden the backgrounds and outlook of government officials, strengthen the legislature, and improve the legal system. But even if the pace picks up, Washington should not expect a rapid expansion of democratic participation.