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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

China Is Invisible Issue in Campaign

September 13, 2000|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — This is the story of a non-story. Sometimes, what isn't happening in our country is more interesting and significant than the dramas we see before us.

And that's the case with the awkward silence that has descended, both in the presidential campaign and in Congress, over American policy toward China. The country ought to be having a debate, but instead our political leaders act as though they have all been afflicted by an epidemic of lockjaw.

Who can doubt that, a year from now, China will be one of the two or three most vital foreign policy issues the new president and Congress will face? Inevitably, America will be in the midst of new disputes about Taiwan, or continuing Chinese repression, or China's membership in the World Trade Organization, or all three.

Yet this week, as the Senate prepares to vote on granting permanent normal trading status for China, both Republican and Democratic leaders have put out the word to their parties not to raise any fuss. No hassles, no quibbles, no controversy, they insist: Just rubber-stamp the bill.

Meanwhile, Al Gore and George W. Bush talk about China as little as possible. They act almost as if there were a deal between them to pretend China didn't exist.

So far, Bush and his Republican running mate, Dick Cheney, have acted as though the biggest foreign policy issue confronting this country were defense preparedness--that is, whether the military is ready and equipped to fight.

That's a curious issue in policy terms, since it raises obvious questions: Ready to fight whom? Is America's defense budget, which is already far larger than those of all potential enemies combined, really too skimpy?

It's also dubious politics for Bush. Preparedness is, understandably, always a worry for those in the military and their families. But it doesn't seem like an issue that will arouse the public this year. In fact, Bush's choice seems to delight the Democrats.

"I hope they [the Republican candidates] keep talking about it, because it's not buying them any votes," says Democratic Party activist Robert L. Borosage.

On the few occasions Bush does talk about China, he keeps returning to the same few pet phrases, which don't stand up to critical scrutiny.

Explaining why he would keep sanctions on the Communist regime in Cuba but not on the one in China, Bush regularly answers, as he did last month: "The trade with China is between people, entrepreneurs. The trade with Cuba is with the Cuban government."

That's a stereotype that doesn't fit the facts. If Bush would look, he would find that the overwhelming number of major American companies in China--autos, aircraft, telecommunications, you name it--are doing business with Chinese state enterprises, not with private companies.

Gore certainly is even less specific about China.

Last December, when his campaign was just getting started, Gore was asked at a Times breakfast what sorts of weapons the United States should or shouldn't supply to Taiwan. Gore insisted he couldn't answer because to do so would violate the American policy of "strategic ambiguity."

There is, in fact, a policy called strategic ambiguity. However, it has a different and narrow meaning: Under it, the United States has for decades left unanswered the question of whether, or under what circumstances, it would intervene to defend Taiwan in a war with China.

Gore, it appears, is now stretching the idea of "strategic ambiguity" to cover his entire China policy. He wants to say as little as possible about what he would do while in office.

Why the silence? Cynics would say Gore doesn't want to open up questions about the famous Buddhist temple fund-raising incident of the 1996 campaign. But that's much too facile, even with respect to Gore, and it doesn't explain at all Bush's reticence on China.

No, the dynamics are much deeper. The truth is that China is the subject of intense internal disagreements within each of the two major parties.

The Democrats don't want to reopen the divisions between labor and the business-oriented wing of the party. The Republicans, similarly, are torn by bickering over China between conservatives, who want to confront China, and commerce-oriented Republicans, who don't.

And so a false tranquillity reigns. Neither party leadership wants to make trouble for itself by opening up a troublesome subject now. Everyone wants to deep-six the issue, at least until after November.

What's wrong with this absence of debate? Simply this: Elections work best when the candidates say honestly what they intend to do. That way, when the winning candidate takes office, there will be a consensus to support his policies. But on China, it appears, there won't be any such consensus at all.

"At the moment, there seems to be more of an open debate within China about the United States than there is a debate in the United States about China," notes Michael Pillsbury, author of the recent book "China Debates the Future Security Environment."

Sadly, that's true. For this state of affairs, we have to blame our political leaders and parties for their self-enforced silence, and ultimately ourselves as a people for not asking enough good questions about China and for not insisting upon some answers.

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Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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