WASHINGTON — It is now becoming clear that despite two years of repeated, fumbling efforts by the Bush Administration, the United States' relationship with China has gone into a profound tailspin. It may well take years to recover.
The change is historic, one with broad implications not only for China but for the rest of Asia, which, since the 1970s, has been able to take for granted relatively close regional cooperation between Beijing and Washington. Underlying the change is the Administration's prolonged failure to grasp the implications both of the 1989 Beijing massacre and of the legacy of the Cold War.
U.S.-China ties are now eroding in ways that seem beyond the control of either side. Over the strong opposition of the Administration, Congress may soon impose some new conditions on the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade benefits. If the conditions are tough or impossible for China to meet, it may respond by curtailing educational and cultural exchanges with the United States, crimping the actions of U.S. companies in China or downgrading diplomatic relations.
Yet even if the Administration wins its battle on Capitol Hill for the MFN benefits, it may well prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. The criticism the Chinese leadership receives during the congressional debate is sure to infuriate the octogenarians in Beijing. And the series of retaliatory actions that the Bush Administration is being forced to take to persuade Congress that it is not "soft on China" may annoy Beijing even more.
This spring, the Administration has welcomed the Dalai Lama into the White House, threatened to slap new punitive trade sanctions against Beijing and voiced a willingness to consider the creation of a new "Radio Free China"--all actions aimed at winning the congressional battle by showing that the Administration is willing to retaliate against China in ways other than changing its most-favored-nation status.
A few weeks ago, one of the Administration's policy-makers on China confessed that he was puzzled by the increasingly nasty tone of relations between Washington and Beijing. Last year, he had believed that the two governments were making slow, step-by-step progress. China had lifted martial law and allowed pro-democracy dissident Fang Lizhi to leave the country. The United States had opened the way for China to begin receiving much-needed loans from abroad. Yet since then, he lamented, the climate has turned sour again in a series of new disputes over arms control, human rights and trade. The Administration official couldn't understand why the two countries seem utterly unable to clear the air.
The official's puzzlement reflects the mistaken assumptions the Administration has held since China's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989. The Administration's approach has been to try to restore relations between the United States and China through a series of small, concrete, achievable steps. The United States pushes China to lift martial law, to account for the people it sent away to prisons and labor camps, to release prominent dissidents, to put an end to the export of goods produced by prison labor.
All these are, by themselves, worthwhile endeavors. But it is futile for Bush Administration officials to hope that this step-by-step approach can lead to a restoration of normal ties between the United States and China. This approach is like trying to fix a severed arm with a series of Band-Aids.
The underlying human-rights dispute between the two countries is not over prisoner lists but over the 1989 massacre itself--what the Chinese leadership did there and what its actions revealed about the underlying nature of China's political system, its undemocratic nature and the brutality it uses to stay in power. To Americans, including both the Administration and its congressional critics, the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands in Tian An Men Square represented deep, popular protests against China's Communist Party regime. But to the leadership in Beijing, it was a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" against the socialist system. In dealing with China, U.S. officials understandably underscore the American commitment to democracy--but in doing so, they become the principal external threat to the Chinese regime.
Chinese officials complain that in their dealings with Washington since 1989, Americans keep upping the ante. Last year, the Administration wanted a lifting of martial law and the release of Fang Lizhi. This year, there are a series of new issues to resolve: Chinese missile sales, trade disputes, Chinese exports of goods made with prison labor. The Chinese officials are coming to realize that even if these issues are settled, there will be new ones next year.
The Bush Administration's second mistake is that it has repeatedly tried to talk about China in isolation--ignoring the legacy of the Cold War and its impact on American politics and overlooking the general outlines of past U.S. foreign policy.