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National Perspective | International Outlook

On China, No Return to Nixon Era

February 07, 2001|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Does American policy toward China ever really change from administration to administration? The conventional wisdom says no--but then again, when it comes to China, old assumptions are worth reexamining.

Within weeks, the new Bush administration will face its first decisions on how to deal with the world's most populous nation. The first item will be whether the U.S. should sponsor a resolution, as it often has in the past, condemning China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Already, in both Washington and Beijing, the parties are maneuvering. Human rights groups here rush to line up support. In Beijing, the regime suddenly tries to show it's making progress on human rights. Meanwhile, a Chinese source privately warns that the Bush team should avoid voicing too much support for the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which China is trying to eradicate.

All of this is old hat, many China hands say. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) The apostles of continuity argue that every American president since Richard Nixon has ended up with essentially the same China policy.

"There's an element of humor to this," says Stanford University professor Michel Oksenberg. "Each administration thinks it's going to do something different. And after a period of dancing around, [America and China] end up in the same place--which is to say, recognition that there's no choice but peaceful coexistence."

Oksenberg is right, but only up to a point. It's true that since the Nixon administration, every U.S. president has decided that China is big and important enough that it can't be shunned or ignored. The era of denial ended with the Nixon opening.

Yet let's look again. What does this supposed continuity tell us about the options today? Not much. Amid the many continuing debates over China--over Taiwan, human rights, trade and arms proliferation--no one is talking about a return to the 1950s. Virtually everyone agrees we need at least to talk to China.

The apparent continuity since Nixon vanishes upon closer scrutiny.

The point of equilibrium between Washington and Beijing changed at the end of the 1980s, with the end of the Cold War and China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

Since then, every U.S. president has taken steps that no predecessors from Nixon onward would have ventured.

Former President Bush sought to preserve close U.S. relations with Beijing--and yet, under pressure from Congress, he also imposed sanctions on China and sold advanced warplanes to Taiwan.

Former President Clinton pursued summitry with Chinese President Jiang Zemin--and yet, to make those meetings politically acceptable at home, he also felt compelled to tell Jiang, in public, that China's Communist regime is "on the wrong side of history."

Each president since 1989, in other words, finds that he can't get as cozy with China as America was in Henry A. Kissinger's heyday. In each new administration, there is a constituency in favor of asserting American values of freedom and democracy, to Beijing's displeasure.

So, the continuity in China policy works both ways now. Sure, the underlying forces require that every president do business with Chinese leaders. But other dynamics also ensure that each new president now adopts tougher policies than did any chief executive from Nixon through Ronald Reagan.

The Bush administration is beginning to wade into these conflicting currents.

In dealing with China, President Bush faces different politics than his predecessor. For example, Clinton counted organized labor among his supporters. Bush doesn't. We can expect that the new administration will pay less attention to issues like, say, prison labor or free labor unions in China than did the Clinton team (which didn't do very much).

Yet on human rights issues, Bush may well listen to an element within his own support base: religious groups, which are understandably upset by China's repressive policies toward any religion it doesn't control.

Elliott Abrams, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in an interview that a year ago, China was one of the world's most intolerant regimes toward organized religion.

Then too, there's another factor: sheer momentum. The Clinton administration supported U.N. condemnations of China in every year but 1998. Bush probably won't want to be seen as doing less than his predecessor.

"This will be the first real test of whether Bush's own rhetoric during the campaign about human rights has any substance to it," says Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch/Asia.

So, the new administration will probably sponsor the resolution condemning China in Geneva. With a new president, we get the same result--one that differs from U.S. policy before 1989.

China's not the same as it was in 1972. And, despite the conventional wisdom, neither is America's China policy.


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

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