Ever since the inauguration of George W. Bush, mainstream commentators have been telling us that the “grown-ups” are again running American foreign policy. Although this implicit rebuke to his predecessor clearly didn’t refer to the new President himself, it served to stroke sources and calm the citizenry.
Then came the April Fool’s spy-plane fiasco, which exposed the emptiness of such reassuring phrases. It is suddenly clear that the “grown-ups” have no coherent China policy and, indeed, hardly any coherent foreign policy at all.
After talking tough for a few days, Mr. Bush found himself depending on Clinton administration holdover diplomats to resolve what he refused to call “an international incident.” The Chinese government instantly rebuffed Mr. Bush’s public demands. He blustered helplessly until the foreign-service professionals managed to craft that apologetic letter of non-apology.
Apparently, the President’s advisers (except Secretary of State Colin Powell) failed to immediately comprehend how embarrassing this situation was-or why the landing of a spy plane on the soil of its target required quiet negotiations rather than puerile grandstanding.
It was gratifying when the detained Navy officers returned home the other day, but their captivity showed the potential price of Bush-Cheney neo-isolationism. American interests around the world obviously have been damaged by this administration’s missteps on global warming, North Korea, the Balkans and nuclear nonproliferation. Our annoyed allies eventually offered their assistance in ending the standoff, but they surely enjoyed watching the White House’s clumsy climb-down.
China poses complicated problems for advocates of peace and democracy. Anyone who saw firsthand the criminal repression inflicted by that country’s leaders on their own people in June 1989, as I did, isn’t likely to retain illusions about the nature of the Chinese regime. Economic liberalization in the years since has done too little to improve human rights there. If increased trade ever creates such improvements-in accord with the hopeful theory of the Clinton era-the result may be realized not in years but in decades.
In the meantime, China’s political instability and burgeoning nationalism can cause serious trouble. Jiang Zemin and his Communist Party comrades are hardly the best “strategic partners” for the United States, but they are preferable to their rivals on the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army. Pseudo-tough provocations by the United States may merely strengthen the most aggressive and least reform-minded elements struggling over the succession to Mr. Jiang.
Of course, that may be exactly what many of our most bellicose China-bashers want, since an angry China neatly fills the ideological and military void left by the implosion of Soviet Communism. From the coddling of Chiang Kai-shek and the China Lobby, to the deployment of the “China card” against the Soviet Union, to the recent boom in corporate commerce with China, the attitude of the American right has constantly been more opportunistic than principled. Conservative anguish about the Communist dictatorship has predictably fluctuated according to propaganda needs. When the Chinese regime served the geopolitical or commercial purposes of American corporate elites, its domestic and international misconduct didn’t seem to matter much.
But now American conservatives are divided as never before between competing varieties of opportunism. When right-wingers look at China these days, some see only the potential of the world’s largest market, while others see only the prospect of a new Cold War military-spending spree. Their opposing versions of simplistic bad policy both deserve to be rejected.
A wiser policy would include aspects of engagement and containment. America and its allies ought to reaffirm their commitment to reducing tensions between North and South Korea and to the peaceful resolution of differences between China and Taiwan. While they should resolve to defend democratic Taiwan from Beijing’s aggression, they should avoid increasing tensions with an unnecessary arms race. They might also stop pretending to ignore the outrages of Chinese imperialism in Tibet.
Trade, academic and other exchanges which draw China into the international community are still to be encouraged, because they strengthen the reform-oriented civilian politicians in Beijing against their reactionary antagonists. But commercial and cultural ties must be accompanied by continuing American pressure on behalf of the imprisoned and oppressed.
Specifically, Congress and the Bush administration could begin by revitalizing the joint commission on human rights established by last year’s legislation permanently normalizing trade relations with China. That body in turn could propose and promote certain conditions for the approval of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
This kind of intelligent approach will only become possible when the warring factions of the right cancel each other out-and when the “grown-ups” around the President finally decide to display their vaunted maturity and wisdom.