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China-US Relations--A Generational View

In the US, the wave of revulsion from that one night of television coverage destroyed the bipartisan consensus in support for the US relationship with China created seventeen years before by the live coverage of the Nixon visit. Political initiative on China policy shifted from the White House to Congress, which imposed a series of sanctions that ended, in effect, normal Sino-American relations.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, the strategic imperative which had driven Nixon’s initiative and sustained our ties for decades was gone. But one thing remained the same: China’s leaders held to Deng’s policies of openness to the world and economic reform, and the economy continued to expand at a double digit rate. By 1993, the World Bank reported that if China were to sustain its rate of growth, it would become the world's largest aggregate economy by the middle of the next century. US policy was buffeted by contending concepts--we don’t need cCina anymore; China as the next superpower. Economic growth has created the specter of major new competitor--some say enemy.

US policy during the Clinton years reflected the confusion caused by the loss of a clear strategic imperative, the antipathy left over from Tiananmen, and the ineptitude of an inexperienced administration and an ignorant Congress. It took two years for the US to delink trade and human rights. It took another six years to finish our WTO negotiations. Reality is the great policy maker, and it dictated a constructive relationship.

The peaceful return of Hong Kong in 1997 boosted confidence in China among the international community. President Jiang Zemin’s successful visit to the US the same year solidified our links and made him a known quantity in the US. By 1998, when President Clinton visited China, we had perhaps over-corrected, proclaiming a “strategic partnership” that went beyond what we actually had. But subsequent tensions in 1999 over the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the demonstrations against the US embassy in Beijing and other US government offices around the country soured perceptions of the US in China and vice versa. George W. Bush ran for President of the US during the summer of 2000, speaking of China as a “strategic competitor” as opposed to the “strategic partner” that President Clinton had hoped China would become. Campaign-related discussion of missile defense and a revamped US military posture fed Chinese fears of an effort at “containing” China or of plotting by the United States to deny China its chance to become a major power in the region. These discussions mirrored growing American suspicions that China planned to lever the US out of Asia.

Meanwhile, during that first generation, the relationship had indeed become enormous. In fact, an economic imperative had replaced the strategic imperative that originally bound us together. Bilateral trade in 1972 was $92 million--in 2000 it was $116 billion (the trade imbalance is $84 billion--one third of China’s exports). In 1982, US direct investment in China was $1.8 million, and $4.3 billion (realized) by 2000, with another $4 billion contracted. There were between 1,500 and 3,000 American Visitors to China in 1972, and more than 500,000 by 2000. My favorite statistic: 3,000 Chinese orphans were adopted in 2000, my granddaughter among them. 1,300 Chinese students attended US universities in 1979; 55,000 last year. These numbers represented the practical daily ties that bind the two peoples and the economies. They also formed the ballast that kept the relationship from being blown too far off course by the winds of politics and the accidents of history. We would need all the ballast available.

After the Bush inauguration, efforts by both sides to get off to a good start--as evidenced in March by the warm White House reception given Vice Premier Qian--were dealt a severe blow by the collision over Hainan of a Chinese F-8 fighter and an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane. While a solution to the impasse was worked out between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decisions by the new Bush Administration to offer a formidable list of new military capabilities to Taiwan, to receive the Dalai Lama at the White House, and to permit Taiwan President Chen Shui Bian to transit New York further inflamed Chinese suspicions. There were reports in the west of a major rethinking in the Pentagon about the future of the US military, with increasing emphasis on potential conflict in Asia, especially with China, as that country’s power and ambition are presumed to increase.

In this climate of growing suspicion between the two sides’ bureaucracies and populations, leaders of the two countries worked to stabilize the relationship, and compartmentalize areas of difference. We continue to take issue over human rights, nonproliferation, freedom of religion, the future of our political systems, and Chinese treatment of American corporations that do business with Taiwan. At the same time, we cooperate in mutually beneficial areas like trade, investment, and efforts to maintain regional stability. American facilitation of China’s entry into the WTO throughout this rather turbulent year is a case in point.

The events of September 11 raise the possibility of a new strategic imperative binding China and the US. The terrorist attacks on our soil have changed America profoundly. They have provided an opportunity to China to quell the debate in the US over the “China threat” and to subsume differences over missile defense into a broader context of cooperation. Whether or not this evolves into a new strategic imperative that ties us together remains to be seen, but there are several areas of common interest on which we can work.

China also has homegrown terrorists with connections to Osama bin Laden. This is part of the motivation this year of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which the governments of Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China pool intelligence on terrorist activities and seek to cooperate to eliminate the terrorist threat to their nations. The US and China both have close relations with Pakistan. We share an interest in a stable Pakistan with responsible authorities in control of their nuclear capability. We also share an interest in the reconstruction of an Afghan nation, and the creation of an environment there hostile to terrorists and drugs. The US is making a long-term commitment to remain engaged in South and Central Asia in a constructive way. We want to work with China and Russia in this regard. China so far has offered rhetorical support for Operation Enduring Freedom and has moved to establish channels for intelligence sharing within the UN on terrorism related issues.

It is, however, still unclear the degree to which China would be willing to lend a practical hand in dealing with the terrorists. The needs of the current situation offers China and the US an opportunity for enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation, which could alter their suspicious perceptions of each other. I hope we both seize the moment. My guess is that we will. The outcome of the APEC meetings here in Shanghai will be crucial in this regard.