June 4, 2008

June 4, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

Dealing With the Middle Kingdom

The protests against the Beijing Olympics mean that China is at last suffering some embarrassment over its shameful conduct in Tibet. For more than half a century, the Chinese have been oppressing the people of Tibet, ruthlessly suppressing their religion and national traditions, and imprisoning or executing those who dissent. And Tibet is not the only place where the Chinese government has exhibited its lack of respect for civilized values. China consistently acts as the patron saint of genocidal and tyrannical regimes-even outside of Asia, in places such as Zimbabwe and Eritrea where the Chinese have no national interests and in Sudan where they have declared international concerns about genocide to be "viciously promoted and publicized by the Sudanese secessionists and external hostile elements."

The Chinese hoped the Beijing Olympics would be a celebration of their progress and prosperity, as the Berlin Olympics were for the Germans in 1936. That isn't going to happen now. Too many world leaders are committed to either boycotting the games or protesting while they are there. But protests are not policy. The rise of China is an enduring geopolitical reality, and America needs a consistent, balanced and strong policy to deal with it.

The key is to distinguish between the aspirations of the Chinese people and the goals of the dictators who run their government. The people of China live with massive corruption, environmental degradation, frequent confiscation of land, poor health infrastructure and general disregard for political and civil rights-and they know who is responsible for it. They will suspect they've been lied to about Tibet as they hear that foreign leaders might not attend the Olympic Games. It is the dictators who need their legitimacy to be accepted in international arenas. Consequently, while America should always show respect for China's history and importance in Asia, there is no reason whatsoever to remain silent while the Chinese government abuses the religion, traditions and people of Tibet.

In short, China should be treated like a great power but should be expected to act like a civilized power as well. On no account should China's dictators be bribed to get them to comply with rudimentary international norms. Instead, America should impose costs on the Chinese when they fall inexcusably short of those norms. A good response to their intransigence in Tibet-assuming President Bush decides to attend the games-would be to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House when he returns and increase America's naval presence in the Western Pacific. That is language the Chinese government would understand.

Above all, our leaders must understand that the foundation of any successful China policy is American strength. If events in Tibet prove anything, it is that the Chinese leadership does not recognize the human rights of vulnerable people. Given time, China may evolve into a more enlightened actor. But the surest way to turn China from a competitor to an enemy is to allow American strength to atrophy. That could tempt the Chinese leadership into believing it can successfully use force to accomplish its objectives in Asia.

China is one of the reasons that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen have joined The Heritage Foundation in saying that America needs to spend at least 4 percent of its GDP on the regular military budget. For the last 15 years, the United States has been underfunding defense modernization and procurement. As a result, the American military is too small, and its equipment is increasingly unreliable and out of date. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been heading in the opposite direction. They have substantially increased their military spending with an emphasis on acquiring the submarines and missiles whose purpose is to deny America's Navy free access to the Taiwan Straits. In 2006, for example, the Chinese commissioned seven submarines, while America was acquiring one.

Many defense experts believe that the United States should increase defense spending above 4 percent of GDP. But the 4 percent floor would be enough to fund a $40 billion to $50 billion per year increase in defense modernization-the minimum necessary to sustain America's qualitative superiority over the next generation, while China, one hopes, makes the transition to political as well as economic freedom.

American power is not the enemy of good relations with China. It is the precondition of it-or, more precisely, it is the umbrella under which the world's democracies can rely on trade, diplomacy and protests like those occurring around the world now to draw China into the family of nations. A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt dealt effectively with instability in China by walking softly, speaking honestly and carrying a big stick. If that is America's policy now, there is real hope for peace and freedom in China's sphere of influence-even in Tibet.

Jim Talent served in the United States House of Representatives (1993-2001) and Senate (2002-2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, Chairman of the committee's Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently a distinguished fellow in military affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the June 2008 issue of Townhall Magazine