Limited Engagement

Courtesy Reuters


A year after the June 1998 U.S.-China summit, progress in the relationship has ground to a near standstill. Premier Zhu Rongji's recent visit to America was plagued by allegations of nuclear espionage and human rights abuses and failed to close the deal on World Trade Organization (WTO) membership for China. The annual bilateral trade imbalance stands at $60 billion and is growing; China could become the United States' largest deficit trading partner in 1999. Tragic memories of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis linger. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade inflamed an already irritated Chinese opposition to U.S.-led action in Yugoslavia. Worst of all, the highly politicized atmosphere over China policy in Washington muddies the clear-headed thinking so critical to stabilize this important but turbulent relationship. Instead, ties consist of little more than mechanistic negotiations and microissues. What happened to the "constructive strategic partnership" professed by the two sides just a year ago?

For the United States, progress in relations with China depends on two factors, neither of which has received the regular, sustained focus required: a clear understanding with China about the two countries' strategic interests and differences and a domestic consensus in support of those understandings. Both of these pillars have been absent for at least ten years and probably more. Without them, U.S. China policy will remain unable to move beyond the mantra of engaging -- a process, not a policy objective in itself -- toward setting well-defined, realistic goals with China and then gaining the domestic support to achieve them. Ten years past the Cold War, entering a far more complex international era, the United States can ill afford to let China policy drift any longer.

There is nothing amiss with engagement per se. Realistic dialogue lays the groundwork for progress in the relationship. Alternative courses, from unilateral sanctions to containment to confrontation, are neither wise nor feasible. China looms ever larger on the international scene as an economic engine, a political

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