China, Without Illusions

March 14, 1999 - The New York Times

For all the twists and turns in his China policy over the last six years, President Clinton has never managed to take the full measure of this complex nation as it struggles to find its place in the world order. Mr. Clinton is not alone. China's intentions are hard to divine and even its leaders and people cannot be certain what economic, political and military role they will play in the years ahead. But Mr. Clinton and his national security team can be faulted for too often gliding over acts of Chinese belligerence in their determination to improve relations and strengthen commercial ties.

As the incidents have accumulated -- among them China's apparent efforts to influence the 1996 American election, its recent crackdown on dissent and its longstanding efforts to steal the most sensitive American military secrets -- the Clinton Administration has sometimes responded weakly. On occasion, it has even abetted Chinese behavior, as in its shortsighted 1996 decision to make it easier for China and other countries to acquire American communications satellites that have potential military applications. When the Administration has firmly defended American interests, as it did earlier in 1996 when China threatened Taiwan, it has nonetheless failed to address the broader pattern of aggressive Chinese conduct.

This has created a troubling impression that Washington's policy is running on automatic pilot, pointed toward the predetermined goal of engagement with China without any serious consideration of course corrections, much less a change in overall direction. The picture makes an inviting target for Republicans, who are now doing their best to turn China into the first foreign policy issue of the 2000 campaign. Some Republican critics, like Senator Richard Lugar, make a reasonable case that the White House ought to reassess its approach. Others, like the Presidential aspirants Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, are grandstanding.

With a visit to Washington by China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, only a month away, a thoughtful review of China policy is needed, along with a recognition by the White House that the defense of American security interests must be paramount in dealing with Beijing. The guiding aim in relations should be that Washington deal with China warily, but not antagonistically.

The United States has good reasons to seek better understanding and cooperation with China, which is a nuclear power, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, one of the world's largest economies and home to more than one-fifth of the earth's population. But engagement should not be viewed as an end in itself. It makes sense only as a way to advance American interests. These include encouraging greater political and economic freedom in China and persuading Beijing to play a responsible role in international affairs. These aims were advanced when Mr. Clinton spoke eloquently about human rights during his visit to China last year. They were enhanced when Washington won China's agreement to the nuclear test ban treaty and the chemical weapons convention and persuaded Beijing to restrict missile and nuclear-technology sales to Pakistan and Iran.

But too often these goals have been undermined by Washington. American policies were poorly served when the White House responded belatedly and anemically to questionable campaign contributions in 1996 that appear to have originated in China, and may have been directed by Chinese intelligence and military officials. Until recent changes forced by Congress, the handling of satellite sales dangerously relaxed export controls on advanced technology. American security was directly threatened when the Energy Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the White House moved lethargically to deal with suspicions that a spy for China had obtained advanced nuclear warhead designs from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It may be that problems with China can be managed through a more exacting form of engagement that places less emphasis on commerce. It is abundantly clear that doing so will require more vigilance about protecting American interests and a greater willingness by the White House to resist Chinese efforts to exploit the relationship.

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