Nothing in Common: A Policy Review for President Bush's China Visit

Report Asia

Nothing in Common: A Policy Review for President Bush's China Visit

November 15, 2005 7 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

As President George W. Bush prepares for his November 19-21 trip to Beijing, he must steel himself to the realities of an emerging global environment in which the U.S. and China have very few common objectives and an Asia that is increasingly coming under China's shadow. The "constructive, cooperative, and candid" relationship with China that the Bush Administration has sought since 2001 has proved neither constructive nor cooperative. Nor has much candor been forthcoming from the Chinese side.


President Bush should keep expectations for his Beijing visit low; avoid Chinese efforts to portray the visit as a U.S. endorsement of a Sino-U.S. condominium in Asia; and indicate to the Chinese leadership that, after five years of agnosticism on whether China's future will be a net positive or a net negative for Asia-Pacific stability, the U.S. is very near concluding that China is headed in the wrong direction. Following his Beijing visit, the President should direct his national security team to reassess America's response to China's new geopolitical weight in Asia.


Before arriving in Beijing, the President must make a realistic assessment of the divergences in U.S. and Chinese strategic interests:


Democracy: President Bush's strategic imperative of spreading democracy and freedom around the world undermines the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, a "totalitarian" (not "authoritarian") party, that maintains an absolute monopoly on status, absolute authority over the economy, brutal internal security services, and an extremist nationalist ideology. China's leaders see themselves as protectors of fellow autocrats, most notably in North Korea, Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba, and Uzbekistan, against reformist pressures from the United States and other democracies. In addition, the Party stunts Hong Kong's political reforms and relentlessly isolates Taiwan in the international community, including vetoing a Taiwanese representative at the November 2005 APEC summit in South Korea. Moreover, Beijing is not shy about punishing countries that displease it and is causing some Asian democracies, such as the Philippines and Thailand, to reassess their relationships with China and the U.S.


Military: China's rapid military buildup is clearly aimed at challenging America's ability to preserve peace and stability in the Western Pacific. At its center is a growing and modern Chinese submarine fleet designed not only to defend China's own sea lines of communication, but to interfere with those of other potential adversaries, including the U.S., Taiwan, and Japan. China's naval strategy also focuses on U.S. aircraft carriers and tactics needed to neutralize them not just along China's littoral, but into the mid-Pacific as well.


Nonproliferation: A 2005 RAND Corp. study noted that after 15 years of continuous U.S. government engagement with Beijing on the control of exports of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their technologies, and delivery systems, Beijing still fails to act like a "'responsible major power' . . . especially as related to WMD proliferation." There is no indication-beyond rhetoric-that China takes nonproliferation goals seriously.


Taiwan: Nowhere in the world are American goals in greater apparent conflict with Chinese goals than in the Taiwan Strait. The United States has a profound strategic interest in ensuring that Taiwan's vibrant democracy is not coerced into an unwanted relationship with China by Beijing's relentless threats to use force-threats made credible by its advanced air, naval, and missile forces. Legislative gridlock in Taiwan has left it unable to redress sufficiently the military balance in the Strait-which is now shifting decisively toward Beijing-while all Asia is waiting to see the outcome.


North Korea: From the beginning of the North Korean nuclear crisis, China's goal has been the survival and success of North Korea's totalitarian regime, and so it pushes off the "ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula"-forever, if necessary. Chinese President Hu Jintao has praised North Korea for how well it has preserved the "purity" of Communist ideals. More astoundingly, a top Chinese Politburo member declared in 2004 that North Korea's "practical choices" were "fundamentally beneficial to the protection of regional stability and world peace." The warmth of Chinese President Hu Jintao's October 2005 visit to Pyongyang and North Korea's subsequent intransigence in the November 2005 "Six Party Talks" are more evidence that Beijing's North Korea stance is in direct conflict with Washington's.


War on Terror: Chinese strategists still consider "hegemony" (i.e., American policies) a threat equal to "terrorism" and have not cooperated with the U.S. (or anyone else, apparently) in the war on terror. China has dragged its feet even on the illicit trafficking of "MANPADS" (shoulder-fired anti-air missiles that threaten civil aircraft) despite lip-service that it "stands ready" to "further explore" the issue. (In November 2005, two Chinese citizens were indicted in Los Angeles for attempting to import 200 Chinese-made MANPADS into the U.S.) In March 2005, the State Department issued a list of Asian counterterrorism partners, including Taiwan; notably China was absent. And although Chinese leaders permitted U.S. Customs to post officers at ports in Shanghai and Shenzhen as part of the "Container Security Initiative," they agreed grudgingly and only after it was explained that failure to do so would hamper customs clearances of Chinese vessels at U.S. ports.


Trade: China regularly violates its bilateral and multilateral trade obligations to gain mercantilist advantage over its trading partners. For example: China subsidizes domestic industries via state-owned bank loans to state enterprises that are never repaid; Chinese ministries illegally use technical standards to force foreign firms to transfer design and research to China; two-thirds of all counterfeit goods sold globally (worth about $512 billion annually) and 90 percent of pirated pharmaceuticals are from China; 90 percent of the software in China is pirated; and Chinese businesses violate foreign patents with impunity. The Chinese government willfully refuses to enforce its own intellectual property rights laws. U.S. firms are desperate for relief but fear Beijing because they cannot count on Washington to defend their interests.


Energy: China is now the world's second largest consumer of energy. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick points out that "China is acting as if it can somehow 'lock up' energy supplies around the world." Indeed, China's systematic acquisition of petroleum and natural gas reserves and its practice of routing all output to the Chinese market support this view. In addition, Beijing's determination to acquire the U.S. oil firm Unocal was apparent; the Chinese oil firm that tendered the bid was clearly not acting in its own commercial interest. In the end, Beijing apparently did not appreciate the irony of its own prohibition against foreign control in China's energy sector while complaining that U.S. energy firms are not open to Chinese control.


Internet: In an increasingly successful campaign to restrict freedom of information, China is now seeking to put the Internet Corporation for Applied Names and Numbers (ICANN) under United Nations control, where it will be more amenable to Chinese influence. ICANN is responsible for managing Internet domain names, addresses, and routing indicators. The Chinese government's primary interest in international Internet governance is to simplify its control of the information its citizens can access, but the Internet also serves useful internal security functions: monitoring citizens' communications; locating citizens via mobile phone GPS systems; and soon, the ability to cache-and retrieve as desired-anyone's telephonic voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) conversations without using wiretaps.


Human Rights: The Congressional-Executive Commission on China says the human rights environment in China seriously deteriorated over the past year in several key areas, notably religious freedom, freedom of expression, labor rights, rule of law, family planning, democratic governance, and civil society. This was China's fourth straight year of declines, which mirrored State Department human rights assessments that China's human rights environment has been in continuous decay since the Tiananmen crisis of June 1989. These reports belie the general notion among some policymakers that economic reforms and prosperity are "sufficient" conditions for long-term improvement in civil and political rights. In the grip of a disciplined and internally unchallenged totalitarian regime, there is no hope that China will "democratize by itself" without the moral pressure and technical encouragement from the world's democracies.


Other Issues: Even in less strategic issues, such as criminal law enforcement, illegal logging, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, China continues to follow nontransparent policies and practices that stymie U.S. initiatives. Only when one hits near bottom of the list of U.S.-China policy issues will one find some level of policy congruency. Avian flu, endangered species, fisheries protection, global warming, and cultural and academic exchanges are examples where bilateral policy cooperation has been visible.



There are few policy areas in which the U.S. and China share common strategic goals. For the time being, the Administration should keep expectations for U.S.-China relations low. In its November 2005 report, the Congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Commission put its conclusion quite bluntly: "On balance, the trends in the U.S.-China relationship have negative implications for our long-term national economic and security interests."


As a result, the Administration should:

  • Manage expectations for the visit with the American press: There will be no breakthroughs and very little agreement on key issues. A certain diplomatic vagueness is in order on the question of re-inviting Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit Washington unless significant progress is made on issues of importance to the U.S.
  • Begin to educate the American public that, on balance, China's behavior continues to trend in a negative direction despite U.S. attempts to maintain cordial ties;
  • Avoid Chinese efforts to portray the visit as a U.S. endorsement of a Sino-U.S. condominium in Asia. America's Asian partners are already terrified of a declining U.S. presence and commitment in the region,and fear Chinese hegemony.
  • Initiate a national security reassessment of China's new geopolitical weight in Asia. The Administration must focus on desired outcomes in Asia, not the process of accommodating China's political, military, and trade threats.
  • Reassure the people of Taiwan that the survival and success of their democracy-free from political, economic, or military coercion from China-and the preservation of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait remain core American national interests in the Western Pacific.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow