Washington Woos and Boos Beijing

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Articles, China


Call it the “wooing and booing” strategy.  Washington is reaching out to Beijing on such issues as North Korea’s nuclear program and the “war on terrorism.”  At the same time, the Bush administration is blaming China for America’s trade deficit and gearing up to slam Beijing on human rights at the United Nations next month.  Many conservative supporters of the administration, a key constituency in this U.S. election year, are not satisfied with the two-handed approach and would prefer a great deal more booing than wooing.


Since September 11, the United States has sought a closer tactical alliance with China.  The administration has relied on China to put pressure on its erstwhile ally North Korea to participate in the six-party talks that just finished an inconclusive second round in Beijing.  The United States has gone so far as to establish an FBI office in Beijing in order to deepen cooperation on combating international crime.  Summing up this recent detente, Colin Powell declared U.S.-Chinese relations at their best point since 1972.


The most dramatic nod toward Beijing came in December when President Bush publicly chastised Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for challenging the status quo in cross-Straits relations by pushing ahead with a March 20 referendum.  The rebuke was all the more stinging because it occurred during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to the United States.


While some conservatives hailed the move – the Nixon Center’s China scholar David Lampton cited the necessity to be “periodically firm” in a recent lecture – others were appalled at the decision to chastise a close military ally so openly.  “Don’t stand there with a guy who hasn’t faced an electorate in his life and accuse Chen Shui-bian of being a bad guy,” says Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.  “That sends a wrong message to the world.”


The public dressing down of Taiwan was only the latest in a series of disappointments for neo-conservative backers of the president.  “We’ve been very critical on how human rights and democracy have not been a priority in China relations,” says Ellen Bork of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative organization credited with influencing the administration’s foreign policy.  “Last spring, there was a little blip with the State Department making a surge to restore some of the integrity of the human rights component in China policy [but] it hasn’t panned out very well.”


Arthur Waldron identifies a group within both the Democratic and Republican parties that is lobbying hard to downplay human rights in order to achieve a closer economic and security relationship with China, “There is a group in both parties that says, “[the Chinese] may be nasty but they’re not about to go away.  And furthermore they’re changing and we don’t want to rub them the wrong way. This human rights stuff, all it does is mess up the relationship and irritate the Chinese.””


Neo-conservatives, who prioritize human rights over traditional realpolitik considerations, have mobilized to shift administration policy away from Beijing.  “I think the Administration is feeling the heat and that’s why they’ve eased off the pressure on Taiwan,” says John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.  “Let’s just say the usual suspects have been talking to the Administration quietly.”


There is some evidence that groups like PNAC and Heritage are getting their message across.  Last year, the United States failed for the first time in five years to introduce a resolution condemning China at the UN Human Rights Commission.  Next month, however, the administration is set to resume the tradition, a significant sop for the so-called China bashers.


Taiwan supporters point to this renewed concern for human rights as well as unprecedented military cooperation between Washington and Taipei as proof of the administration’s real priorities.  Joyce Shieh, head of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, does not believe that the Bush administration has abandoned Taiwan but has simply made certain political adjustments.  “Deep down, his support for Taiwan is the same,” she says.


The debate on China policy in Washington hinges on whether Beijing has made a profound or a merely tactical shift in its foreign policy – on North Korea, relations in the South China Sea, and non-proliferation.  “There’s undeniable evidence that China has shifted rather dramatically not only in the manner it handles diplomacy but it is also more proactive in a variety of venues, taking much greater responsibility for issues in its neighborhood,” says former Pentagon official Kurt Campbell, now of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Neo-conservatives disagree, arguing that China’s shifts are merely tactical and ultimately dangerous.  China, claims John Tkacik, “has been successful so long as America’s attention is diverted elsewhere.  The longer America is distracted, the more time China has to build up its influence in Asia . . . to the detriment of democratic evolution in the region.”  Arthur Waldron adds, “If we find ourselves in a tight spot in Asia, the other democratic countries will come help us.  The Chinese won’t.”


China policy has already become an election issue in the United States.  In a debate last month, strong Taiwan supporter Joseph Lieberman squared off against John Kerry.  Instead of simply adhering to the standard “one China” policy, Kerry praised the “one China, two systems” model applied to Hong Kong, a formulation certain not to win him any votes among Taiwan supporters.  Now that he’s nearly locked up the Democratic nomination, though, Kerry will likely return to the perennial China-bashing of a presidential hopeful.  The Democrats will soon take aim at the Bush administration for letting the trade deficit with China exceed $100 billion annually, the largest deficits the United States has run with any country.


Although the Bush administration’s “wooing and booing” strategy attempts to make everyone happy, the results may not please anyone.  “The Bush administration promised that the professionals are back in town,” Kurt Campbell says.  But the administration has handled the Taiwan referendum issue, he continued, “with the clumsiness that is the hallmark of every other administration on cross-straits relations over the last 20 years.”


Asia Times Online, March 3, 2004


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