Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton's visit to China (February 20-22) caps off her
groundbreaking first official trip abroad. By visiting Asia first,
Clinton has provided an encouraging sign that she understands the
region's importance to America's future and the central role that
American leadership plays there.
In her speech to the Asia
Society prior to departure, Clinton described her mission as discussing
"how the United States is committed to a new era of diplomacy and
development in which we use smart power ... to find regional and global
solutions to common global problems." With regard to China, she
emphasized "how essential it is that we have a positive, cooperative
It is important to approach China with a strategy designed to achieve clear objectives.
she attempts to do so, it will be useful for Clinton to consider the
approach of prior Administrations. In particular, the United States
would do well to return to core elements of Ronald Reagan's approach to
engagement with China.
What Would Reagan Do?
set the standard for engaging China in a way that demonstrated respect
for the legitimate aspirations of China's people, projected absolute
confidence in American ideals and power (and was prepared to use it),
and welcomed cooperation with China while insisting on measurable
results. He focused more on what governments do than what they say. He
also clearly interpreted America's commitment on cross-Strait issues to
be conditioned absolutely on the peaceful resolution of differences,
focusing on the process and avoiding discussion of outcomes.
most important for the new Administration to consider, Reagan's
approach proved that a broad majority of Americans favor sustained
engagement with China so long as doing so helps to deal with the
dominant security challenges facing this nation and engagement supports
expansion of economic and other freedoms in China with minimal negative
impact on U.S. interests elsewhere.
The Way to Engage China
To sustain broad American support for engagement with China, Clinton should:
- Honestly evaluate Chinese "cooperation" to date.
Clinton has identified the gravest global threats confronting America
as "financial instability and economic dislocation, terrorism and
weapons of mass destruction, food security and health emergencies,
climate change and energy vulnerability, [and] stateless criminal
cartels and human exploitation." This list is fine as far as it goes.
The Bush Administration was also mindful of these priorities. But
before it seeks to expand a "partnership" with China, the Obama
Administration should carefully examine progress on the commitments and
areas of cooperation already identified. With regard to countries of
greatest concern to the United States--North Korea, Iran, Sudan,
Burma--the Chinese record is decidedly poor.
- Develop and maintain a strong, comprehensive deterrent against bad Chinese behavior.
Is China paying a price for failing to uphold commitments or otherwise
hindering U.S. global priorities? An answer to this question should
define the fundamental nature of U.S.-China relations--whether the
nations are partners, rivals, or something in between. The United
States needs to get beyond "hedging." And it needs to focus on more
than just the military threat facing Taiwan. It must increase the price
of bad Chinese behavior on a broader scale. China's commercial and
diplomatic goals in southeast Asia ought not be compatible with
supporting a regime weighing down the region's development and global
orientation. Beijing's claims to the South China Sea and border
disputes with India should not be allowed to sleep quietly only to
arise under more advantageous circumstances. Nor should China get away
with the pretense of "responsible stakeholder" at the same time it is
running diplomatic interference for the likes of regimes in Iran and
- Focus on the need for China to address uncertainty about its current and future direction.
There is a general lack of transparency in China's domestic governance
that amplifies concerns in a wide range of areas: the solvency of its
financial institutions, the management of its currency, the mission
behind its military modernization, whether there will be meaningful
progress on civil and political rights, and the relationship China
ultimately seeks with its neighbors and the U.S. The burden should be
kept squarely on Beijing to be more open and to address these concerns.
the expansion of economic freedom in China but recognize that
prosperity alone will not lead to political freedom or regional peace.
The Chinese people should know that the U.S. supports their desire to
improve their quality of life. But with free-market reform in China
essentially suspended, China's simultaneous resistance to democracy and
massive military modernization leaves open the question of whether
international trade and investment will "socialize" China's evolution
into a status quo power or empower China to mount a stronger challenge
to the current international system.
- Demonstrate respect for Taiwan's democracy.
For there to be a peaceful resolution to differences across the Taiwan
Strait, Beijing must find a way to accommodate and appropriately engage
Taiwan's democratic system. As an example to Beijing, the U.S. needs to
find ways to more openly engage Taiwan's democratic leaders. This does
not require a change of policy or head of state meetings. Senior
envoys, phone and videoconferences, strategic public remarks, and less
restrictive visits to the U.S. (even if not to Washington) are among
the many means to consider. Such engagement should be pursued in a way
that promotes Taiwan as a democracy, focuses on advancing real policy
objectives, and is defensible as part of an effort to avoid conflict
and promote positive development on both sides of the Strait. Nothing
can be more important to setting clear parameters on relations with
China than strict adherence to the word and spirit of the Taiwan
Relations Act. Even as the relationship between Taiwan and China
improves, it is important that America provide Taiwan the support that
will allow it to determine the pace and conditions of that relationship.
- Exhibit strong, respectful, results-oriented leadership.
There is no question that the U.S. and China can and must work together
on many of the major issues of the early 21st century. Progress in one
area does not excuse China's shortcomings in other areas any more than
it does for other countries, including the U.S. Strong leaders, like
Ronald Reagan, are among the most effective in dealing with China
because they respect the legitimate aspirations of the Chinese people
and the responsibilities their government has to their people but at
the same time are honest and straightforward about areas that need to
change. Strong leaders are also effective in dealing with China because
Chinese leaders know they will benefit from cooperation and fear the
consequences of disagreement or conflict.
Speak Plainly, Seek Results
the end, the most important advice for getting China right is the
simplest: speak plainly while seeking results. The new Administration
should clearly communicate the kind of relationship it seeks from
China, what it expects in return, and what it is prepared to deliver,
both positive and negative. What is needed is a more business-like
approach rather than the one that has prevailed for far too long, one
that is captive to diplomatic jargon and falls short of telling
America, her friends, and even the Chinese themselves what the U.S.
expects and what it is prepared to do to realize those expectations.