CHINA POLICY IN TRANSITION

The campaign is over and, although the rhetorical smoke about whether China is a strategic partner or competitor still lingers, the new U.S. administration must now craft and implement its policies toward China and Taiwan. The president's foreign policy and security team has to adjust itself to a number of pressing realities, so the White House should move with dispatch to process senior China and Asia appointments and begin systematic policy reviews. This group should focus on both the current U.S.-China agenda -- which includes some important issues that require immediate attention -- and the broader context of the U.S.-China relationship. First, the administration must handle some pressing issues.

THE IMMEDIATE AGENDA

The fragility and inherent dangers of the Taiwan situation command immediate attention. In April, the United States will have to make the next round of decisions on conventional arms sales to Taiwan. The decision, deferred last year, on whether to sell Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with sophisticated aegis battle-management systems and antimissile defenses will be particularly sensitive and has the potential to precipitate a diplomatic crisis with Beijing. The administration needs to be prepared for the fallout if it decides to proceed. U.S. policymakers will also face ongoing choices about helping Taiwan upgrade its military command-and-control infrastructure and potentially providing theater missile defenses (TMD) for the island.

Second, the need to jump-start a dialogue and build a sustainable framework of interaction between Beijing and Taipei is pressing. The current impasse between the two sides is fraught with danger -- it threatens U.S. interests (and potentially soldiers' lives), as well as broader peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

While not trying to mediate the intractable problem, the new administration should actively seek to bring the two sides to the bargaining table. This is not a problem amenable to easy solutions, and any resolution must be agreed on by both sides rather than imposed by either one. But Washington's considerable influence and leverage could help move the situation forward, if a careful mix of policy instruments is applied toward both sides.

Any official cross-strait dialogue must take the "one China" principle as its starting point. This principle, which holds that Taiwan is part of China, had been the accepted bottom line in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei until the 1990s, when the government of Taiwan progressively drifted away from that position. Even though in the eyes of all but a dozen or so countries Taiwan is not a sovereign nation-state, it does possess substantial international autonomy, and its democratic progress commands the world's respect. This autonomy must be turned from a negative into a positive factor and should serve as the basis for serious talks over forming a newly constituted Chinese nation-state.

The concept of confederation offers the best hope for an ultimate solution: it would bring the island back into the sovereign fold of China while guaranteeing substantial autonomy to Taiwan. Indeed, many intellectuals (and some officials) on both sides of the strait have been actively exploring the implications of the confederal, federal, and commonwealth models. Washington should actively encourage this search for possible solutions and may have much to offer in the process. Nations with similar political structures, such as Great Britain, India, Australia, and Germany, may also have useful ideas and experience to contribute.

To reach a solution, ultimately, will require a redefinition of China's status as a state in the international community, as well as a reconfiguration of the mainland's political system. If Beijing truly wishes to solve the Taiwan problem, it must be prepared to undertake substantial political changes at home. It must shed its ossified positions and develop a truly innovative and flexible formula that actually attracts Taiwan back into the national fold. Forcing unification will never work, and the Hong Kong model will not satisfy the Taiwanese.

Such an outcome, however difficult, would provide a win-win solution. In the meantime, a variety of interim agreements could be reached to preserve stability while progressively moving toward a new federal or confederal system. (An essential component of any interim agreement would be a pledge by China not to use force in return for a pledge by Taiwan not to declare independence.)

The third pressing issue for the new administration is the implication for the U.S-China nuclear balance of pursuing a U.S. national missile defense (NMD). Although NMD has yet to prove technically feasible, China has warned it will increase its nuclear arsenal at least tenfold -- from its current 16-20 intercontinental ballistic missiles to 200-250 -- if the United States proceeds with even the most minimal variant of NMD. As with the aegis destroyer decision, but with much more serious implications in this case, if Washington decides to proceed with NMD, policymakers must clearly understand all of the strategic consequences: this attempt to ensure security may, in fact, undermine it. The potential deployment of TMD in Japan and Taiwan is another hot-button issue for Beijing that could also provoke a crisis or stimulate regional missile proliferation. Again, if Washington decides to proceed with TMD, much diplomatic groundwork needs to be laid first.

Fourth, the new administration faces a dynamic and evolving situation on the Korean Peninsula that has potentially profound implications for U.S. alliances and force deployments in northeastern Asia. Adjustments will inevitably be necessary if the detente proceeds, let alone if reunification is accomplished. Since the 1999 Perry report (the culmination of former Secretary of Defense William Perry's diplomatic efforts as President Clinton's special envoy to North Korea), Beijing and Washington have adopted reinforcing policies in support of further Korean cooperation.

But change on the Korean Peninsula also further emphasizes the need to develop a regional security architecture that redefines, yet enhances, U.S. mutual security alliances in East Asia and keeps American military forces forward-deployed, but in a way that China can live with. The problem is that official Chinese policy advocates abrogating U.S. official alliances and an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. This unsustainable position betrays a fundamental disagreement about America's preeminent security role in East Asia and Japan's increasing regional security contribution. Indeed, it is a dangerous cancer festering on the U.S.-China relationship and on the Asia-Pacific region.

Washington urgently needs to initiate and sustain high-level discussions with Beijing to explore a regional security architecture that both retains long-standing U.S. commitments and, at the same time, involves China more actively and constructively in maintaining regional security. If China remains outside such an architecture or becomes the expressed target of such alliances, the region will remain fundamentally unstable. Beijing needs to be drawn into an adjusted regional framework in a positive-sum fashion -- but this requires significant policy adjustments from both governments.

Fifth, the next administration inherits ongoing concerns about China's proliferation of nuclear technology and missile components. Fortunately, in the waning months of the Clinton administration, Washington persuaded the Chinese government to institute more thorough export controls to govern the transfer of sensitive items used for developing ballistic missiles. The new administration should press for firmer commitments and work to integrate China fully into the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Sixth, the perennial American concerns about improving human rights and the rule of law in China remain unresolved. The situation has continued to deteriorate over the past year, particularly with Beijing's continued persecution of house churches (small Christian assemblies that meet in homes) and various religious practitioners, including the Falun Gong sect. The administration needs to prepare its strategy now for the spring meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva by mounting a serious campaign to mobilize a broad coalition of nations in condemnation of Beijing's abuses. Heading this charge will prove diplomatically difficult, but to not do so would be morally abject.

Seventh, within the first six weeks after the new president's inauguration, the Pentagon and the Chinese military are due to hold their annual Defense Consultation Talks. Aside from allowing senior officials of the two military establishments to exchange views on global strategic and regional security issues, these talks also set the schedule for bilateral military exchanges for the balance of the year. These exchanges are important to both sides for a number of reasons but have come under increased scrutiny and fire from Congress and some American commentators. The new military-exchange package needs to be negotiated with care, with an eye toward protecting U.S. national security while advancing useful interchange.

Finally, China is in the last lap of gaining full accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States cannot do much more to help the process now that Congress has voted to extend to China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). Beijing has one more bilateral agreement to conclude, with Mexico, but the endgame has already begun in the WTO Working Party in Geneva. The new administration's trade representatives should both work to forestall any backsliding on Beijing's part and move with dispatch to finish the complex and protracted process soon so that China can take its WTO seat this year.

THE TIES THAT BIND

In addition to the pressing issues detailed above, Washington's new administration also inherits the broader context of U.S.-China relations: the bilateral, regional, global, and domestic concerns that surround the relationship. These realities will help shape, but will also constrain, any policy initiatives. The new administration must therefore appreciate and proceed from five fundamental realities that shape the policy environment.

First, engagement with China is a fact of life, not a policy preference that can be turned up, down, on, or off at the whim of an administration. The United States and China are linked by an extensive web of cultural, societal, scientific, and commercial ties that bind the two nations together through countless daily human interactions. Unlike during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, during which the two adversaries had minimal exchanges in these areas, today Americans and Chinese share a dense network of professional and personal bonds. These bonds are neither generally reported in the media nor appreciated by analysts, but they form a real web between the two countries.

Every year nearly 200,000 Americans visit China, but even more Chinese received tourist visas to the United States in 1999 (the U.S. embassy in Beijing reported 320,000 applications, of which it granted 214,000). In addition, approximately 50,000 Chinese students received visas to study in the United States this academic year. Although not large in aggregate terms, a small but steady current of scientists and other professionals crosses the Pacific in both directions to collaborate in research, attend professional meetings, and share views. Cultural and athletic exchanges, as well as sister-city and state-province exchanges, add to the total number of social and cultural linkages. These ties have grown steadily over the two decades since the normalization of diplomatic relations.

Extensive trade and commercial ties also bind the two nations. They are engaged in nearly $100 billion in annual bilateral trade, the volume of which has grown by more than $10 billion per year recently -- a rate that will only accelerate now that Congress has granted PNTR to China. Of course, the more than $60 billion trade surplus in China's favor is unacceptably high and needs to be brought down. But overall, trade and investment further anchor the often volatile relationship, counterbalancing frictions in other areas.

The wide range of communications and transportation links are another obvious, but important, element literally connecting the two nations. Daily flights between the two countries are regularly full. Telephone calls, e-mails, and faxes crackle through the wires every minute of the day. Journalists of the print and broadcast media, in addition to filmmakers in both nations, also directly inform the average citizens of both societies about each other. In short, American and Chinese societies are bound together by both the forces of globalization and by their own thick network of bilateral interactions. These various nongovernmental exchanges give depth and breadth to U.S.-China relations and provide powerful buffers against the frequent volatility of political and strategic relations.

Therefore, U.S.-China relations are not necessarily adversarial, as some commentators suggest. Cold War-era relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union, by contrast, allowed for only minimal exchanges of the type that connect Chinese and American private citizens today.

COOPERATION AND COMPETITION

The second reality is that, although often juxtaposed in rhetoric, as during the recent U.S. presidential campaign, the dichotomy between strategic cooperation and competition is a false one -- the U.S.-China relationship is a mixture of both. Despite the discordant issues over which their mutual interests and perspectives diverge and diplomatic tensions sometimes run high, numerous areas exist where the two governments have complementary or convergent interests and can enjoy positive ties.

For example, in the area of "high security," Washington and Beijing share interests in stemming the development of weapons of mass destruction and controlling their means of delivery; limiting the spread of fissile material and other militarily and strategically sensitive items; adherence to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- despite the latter's nonratification by the U.S. Senate -- and working together in the field of nonproliferation; promoting a peaceful, economically viable, socially stable, and ultimately reunified Korean Peninsula free from weapons of mass destruction; reducing tensions in South Asia by bringing both India and Pakistan into the NPT and the WTO and freezing the nuclear programs of both nations before they move to weaponization and deployment; a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan problem according to the "one China" principle; and finally, peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region (even if the two sides view the sources of instability differently and advocate different means of conflict prevention). These are all vitally important strategic commonalities to build on.

In addition, the two governments engage in substantive cooperation on a variety of issues that are increasingly important for regional and broader international security. Limited cooperation in the "low security" area includes combating narcotics production and trafficking, fighting organized crime, controlling illegal immigrant smuggling and piracy, controlling weapons smuggling, promoting economic stability and security, protecting the environment, providing disaster relief, and peacekeeping operations.

Of course, in addition to the many areas where Chinese and American interests coincide, real and fundamental disagreements over security also exist -- particularly over Taiwan's security, and Japan's and America's military roles in East Asia -- but these two powers are not preordained to suffer a hostile and adversarial relationship.

Because theirs is a relationship that contains the very real possibility of conflict, it is imperative that Beijing and Washington maximize cooperation, manage frictions, live with competition, and coexist peacefully. Above all, they should work to avoid confrontation -- in the short term over Taiwan, and in the longer term over shaping the regional security structure for the early twenty-first century. Policymakers and pundits on both sides must keep vigilant watch for an inadvertent drift into conflict and work to avoid, not precipitate, a slide toward confrontation.

Whenever two nuclear powers face confrontation, they risk disaster. A war of either words or weapons between the United States and China will not serve their own national interests, the health of the Asia-Pacific region, or global stability. The operative goal for the two governments must be not only to manage the tensions but also to narrow the differences and thereby promote stability.

LIMITS TO CHANGE

The third reality that the new U.S. administration must accept is that China is a one-party authoritarian state resistant to political change. As abhorrent as most Americans find the Chinese political system and the horrendous abuses that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has inflicted on its citizens during its 50 years in power, the reality is that the U.S. government has very limited direct influence over the regime's domestic behavior. Unilateral pressure and sanctions have had an ephemeral impact at best, often aggravating relations unnecessarily, while multilateral pressure has proven only marginally better. Although America's democratic example remains a beacon for China's oppressed citizenry, Washington must be realistic about its external influence.

Americans are not likely to abandon their century-long "missionary impulse" to remold China in their liberal image, but they must be more patient about achieving that goal. Fundamental political change in China is possible, but it must come from within. There is little doubt that the CCP regime is ridden with cancerous corruption and has badly atrophied as a centrally controlled Leninist organization. Furthermore, it now lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese, as evidenced by a continuously rising number of public protests. In many ways, today's China exhibits all the classic signs of dynastic decline. But it is not likely that the CCP will implode and collapse like its counterparts in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Rather, a progressive decay will chip away at its power and legitimacy for some time, with the military serving as the ultimate guarantor of the regime.

But the new American administration can more clearly advocate political change in China, even if realistically anticipating a lengthy drama. The United States must speak clearly about its desire for the ultimate democratization of the Chinese political system -- lest anyone, most of all the Chinese people, doubt its preferences. Such clarity will no doubt aggravate China's rulers and strain the bilateral relationship, but it will be consistent with the American ethos and send an unambiguous message to Beijing and other nations as to where the United States stands. This is called leadership. In the meantime, American interests require strengthening the capacity of the Chinese government -- particularly at the local level -- to implement the rule of law and carry out its international commitments and obligations. Nor is it contradictory to engage in the multitude of exchanges with Chinese officials (including those in the military) noted above: this sharing of ideas provides a key mechanism for guiding China's evolution in a more cooperative, transparent, and liberal direction.

DEALING IN ALLIES

The fourth reality is that America's relations with Beijing are not just bilateral but should involve greater coordination with Asian and European partners. For far too long Washington has had a myopic view of its relationship with China that often ignores the opinions and policies of other key nations. This has particularly been the case with Europe, whose governments rightfully complain of total neglect in the formulation of American policy toward China and Asia. These allies point out that during the eight years of the Clinton administration, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific visited Europe for formal consultations only twice. His deputy was dispatched slightly more often -- but seemingly always on the eve of a vote in the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Such eleventh-hour diplomacy is inexcusable treatment of close allies, undermines American policy goals in multilateral organizations, and hinders the U.S. effort to mobilize international coalitions to move China in more constructive directions. In fact, the European Union commits more resources and manages more programs to improve China's governance than does the United States.

In addition, American and European experts on China and Asia need to interact much more, and a designated "Track II" diplomatic channel (unofficial contacts among nongovermental actors aimed at advancing diplomatic efforts) needs to be established to enhance policy dialogue. As the new administration forges its China policy, it must look across the Atlantic as well as across the Pacific. With appropriate consultation with its allies, Washington would likely find substantial European support for its diplomacy with China.

Washington's consultations with governments in the Asia-Pacific region have been better than those in Europe but remain insufficient. Asian officials (including key allies in Tokyo and Canberra) too often learn of American initiatives toward China from the newspapers. Washington must anchor a successful policy toward China with a broader regional strategy -- and it must sustain that strategy through frequent and detailed consultations with Asian states.

This diplomacy must begin with Japan, but it should also include America's four other regional allies -- South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines -- and strategic regional partners such as Singapore. U.S. policymakers would also do well to consider Indian interests, through discussions with New Delhi, when formulating China policy. Again, these official consultations should be supplemented with Track II dialogue among specialists.

Above all, the new administration must view its bilateral relationship with China as just one element, albeit an important one, of its larger Asian vision -- a multilayered security architecture, an open trading system, the growth of liberal democracy, increased rule of law and transparency, and strengthened interaction among like-minded states.

PARTNERING WITH CONGRESS

Fifth, a successful China policy begins at home, with political cooperation in its formulation and public support for its implementation. But the bipartisan consensus that undergirded and guided China policy in the 1970s and 1980s has unfortunately collapsed, replaced by polarization and politicization of policy. Yet a political center in favor of "engagement" with China does exist between the Republicans and the Democrats, although extreme voices on both sides have been growing more vociferous. The issue of how to deal with China has become a lightning rod for the left and right alike. This political bickering places a crippling domestic burden on an effective China policy.

The new president and his administration should make rebuilding a bipartisan political consensus on China a high priority. This will not be easy given a Congress more evenly divided than at any other time in nearly a half-century and a president with a weak mandate to rule. To overcome these drawbacks, the president must devote regular personal attention to China and require the same of his cabinet. History clearly shows that China policy suffers from inefficiencies and bureaucratic rivalries when the president and senior White House staff are disengaged. Furthermore, the new president and his staff need to master the U.S. negotiating record with Beijing and Taipei and clearly understand Washington's previous commitments.

An essential part of this engagement means establishing a constructive partnership with Capitol Hill. Early in his first year, the president and key cabinet members should meet with the congressional leadership to define the division of responsibility between the two branches of government in forming a new consensus on, and implementing, China policy. Certain items should be protected from political squabbling, including arms transfers to Taiwan, which remain the prerogative of the executive branch. Regular executive-legislative consultations could establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and improve policy implementation.

Moreover, after agreeing to such a framework with Congress, the president needs to explain to the American public why the United States needs a good working relationship with China. He should personally make the case for depoliticizing China policy, make clear what America's vital interests are with respect to Beijing and Taipei, and enunciate a clear vision for managing these complex relationships. A high-profile public speech early on should accomplish these tasks. Although a successful policy must reflect the views and support of the American people, public perceptions also require cultivation and education. New administrations often provide windows of opportunity for bipartisan agreements. If such basic and broad consensus can be reached, the media and the multitude of involved interest groups will take their cues accordingly.

In formulating and planning how to implement its China policy, the new administration must recognize that dealing with China is no longer the sole preserve of the executive branch. It is now a profoundly pluralized policy process -- perhaps more than U.S. policy toward any other country. Congress, interest groups, and the media all have important roles as well as responsibilities. Congress should also consider holding Fulbright-style hearings on China policy, convened by a specially composed bipartisan committee, to air the range of views about America's most important future relationship.

THE BUREAUCRATIC CONTEXT

A final step toward devising a successful China policy is to institutionalize some new positions and procedures within the executive branch. A number of reforms are needed.

First, China policymaking needs to become more centralized. A single individual should be vested with presidential authority to oversee and coordinate China policy across executive-branch departments. This individual should have substantial experience with China and Taiwan issues and the stature necessary to command respect from both Beijing and Taipei; this person would also need the trust of the president and his national security team, as well as Congress' respect. An expert with sufficient authority would give both Beijing and Taipei a primary channel of communication that would reduce their ability to manipulate the separate parts of the Washington bureaucracy and Congress. This official would also synthesize the component parts of China policy, facilitate its implementation, and be the point person on domestic relations.

In addition, it now makes little sense to bureaucratically divorce East Asia from the rest of the continent. The U.S. foreign policy machinery has yet to adjust to the post-Cold War Asia, where issues and problems quickly cross borders and are inextricably intertwined. South Asian issues have a much closer bearing on East Asia than on the Middle East, and the Central Asian republics are also developing closer ties to East Asia. Serious consideration should be given to bringing South and Central Asia under the Asian Directorate at the National Security Council (NSC), as well as creating a broader Bureau of Asian Affairs at the State Department. This bureau would be staffed by an assistant secretary with overall regional responsibility but also with deputy assistant secretaries designated for various subregions of Asia. The intelligence community should also be restructured accordingly (in one particularly odd anomaly, the East Asia analysis team at the CIA is currently lumped together with the Latin America team).

This new regional system would take the many issues that transcend Asian borders -- weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, narcotics, public health, human rights, and the environment -- out of the current piecemeal, bilateral mold. It would also help link these issues to global policy initiatives. More functional specialists also need to be appointed to the new regional bureaus, as has already started happening at the CIA. The State Department, the NSC, and the Department of Defense should seriously consider adopting a similar model. The dramatically increased "functionalism" of the foreign policy and national security bureaucracy during the Clinton years has often been a recipe for uncoordinated and overly cumbersome policymaking. Hence, streamlining functional expertise and integrating it into reconfigured regional bureaus would improve policy development and execution.

Such reorganization would also better harmonize China policy with broader Asia policy. China policy has too frequently been made on the basis of bilateral or domestic concerns, without due regard for its impact on the region or the interests of China's neighbors. Occasionally, the same problem has led the United States to neglect the impacts of its regional actions on China. For example, when the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into Mongolia and Kazakhstan last summer in joint exercises aimed at building bilateral security ties with these countries, China's perceptions of such actions were not given due consideration.

GETTING CHINA POLICY RIGHT

Implementing these policies will require recognizing China's importance in America's future and prioritizing the new administration's foreign and national security policies accordingly. There may be no more important country in America's future. China is undoubtedly a rising power in both absolute and relative terms. The operative policy questions for the United States are how to adapt to China's rise, how quickly China is modernizing, and toward what ends. The United States must decide in which realms to facilitate or frustrate China's modernization. In the realm of military modernization, for example, it is not in America's national interest to help the People's Liberation Army develop a power-projection capability. However, a prosperous, stable, and responsible China is clearly in American national interests -- and modernization and growth in certain civilian realms will move China in that direction.

A successful policy toward China must therefore help funnel China's progress in a peaceful, constructive direction. All too often in recent years, China policy has been made and implemented in a piecemeal, ad hoc, and reactive fashion. Strategic vision is required for the next administration -- but so too is political will. Unless the president and his team are willing to articulate, educate, advocate, and fight for the policy of hard-headed engagement, it will fail -- and the strategic die of the early twenty-first century will be cast with these two nuclear-armed continental powers as adversaries. The United States, China, and the entire Asia-Pacific region will lose if this comes to pass. Indeed, global affairs will be profoundly destabilized if those who seek confrontation with China hijack American policymaking. It is therefore vital that the new administration gets China policy right, and that it does so soon.

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  • David Shambaugh is Director of the China Policy Program and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University. He is also a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. His newest book, Modernizing China's Military: Progress and Problems, will be published later this year by the University of California Press.
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