June 15, 1998

June 15, 1998 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense

Priorities for the President At the China Summit: Putting NationalSecurity First

In late June, President Bill Clinton will embark on an eight-day state visit to the People's Republic of China. This will be the first visit of a U.S. President to China since the bloody massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. President Clinton believes this state visit is important to the forging of the "constructive strategic partnership" proclaimed last October at the Sino-U.S. summit with President Jiang Zemin in Washington, D.C.

Much has happened since that meeting to call such a partnership into question, including allegations of Chinese interference in the 1996 presidential election; reports of American private-sector technical assistance to China's missile program, which the U.S. Department of Defense concluded harmed U.S. national security interests; Pakistan's explosion of a nuclear device, which China helped to construct; and intelligence reports that China is aiming its ballistic missiles at targets in the United States.

Today, Sino-U.S. relations are far from reaching last October's promise of a strategic partnership. In fact, the very concept of a "strategic partnership" was then, and is now, premature and quite possibly delusional. There is too little sharing of national interests and fundamental values on which to build such a relationship. If a strategic partnership is possible, then it must be grounded in broad-based political support in Congress and among the American people. Yet this clearly is lacking.

The objective of all U.S. China policy should be to build an enduring relationship that is politically sustainable and based on trust and transparency. To this end, U.S. policy should be directed at two central goals. First, it should focus on protecting vital U.S. national security interests in the region. Second, it should focus on the expansion in China of individual freedom in all its forms, including economic freedom. The Clinton Administration should not allow commercial interests to jeopardize national security.


To develop and sustain a strategic partnership with China, President Clinton should go to the upcoming summit in China with a clear agenda that advances, in a frank and straightforward manner, the priority security, economic, and political interests of the United States.

Protecting Security Interests

China's emphasis on military modernization and the proliferation of ballistic missiles, nuclear technologies, and destabilizing advanced weaponry--particularly in the Persian Gulf and South Asia regions--pose multiple threats to U.S. security. In May, India and Pakistan each conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests, which have opened the door to a nuclear arms race in South Asia and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. China's demonstrated willingness to use force to advance its territorial claims against Taiwan and in the South China Sea, as well as its strenuous opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, should be matters of grave concern to the Clinton Administration. To counter these threats to national security, at the upcoming summit the President should:

  • Challenge China to change its security strategies. President Clinton can advance the prospects for peace in South Asia and across the Asia-Pacific region by challenging China to abandon security strategies heavily based on nuclear missiles. If China agrees to enter into agreements that promote transparency and the control of strategic nuclear forces, the United States should be prepared to share missile defense technology with China. This would be a positive example for India and Pakistan: Arms control can lead to the sharing of strategic defense technology. If China refuses, however, the United States must be prepared to give its allies in the region missile defense systems to counter China's nuclear missile forces.

  • Condemn China's nuclear technology and missile proliferation. China has a long history of proliferation in such regions as the Persian Gulf and South Asia, which are of national interest to the United States. President Clinton should be very firm with Jiang Zemin at the summit. China's long-standing assistance to Pakistan's nuclear and missile development programs helped to push India and Pakistan into a nuclear arms race, which threatens both world peace and China's security. This development has given comfort to other states, like Iran, that seek to build their own nuclear weapons. Finally, the President should remind Jiang Zemin that the United States in the past has been successful in stopping nuclear weapons programs from flourishing in South Korea and Taiwan, which prevented the emergence of new nuclear threats to China.

  • Inform China that future commercial space cooperation depends on China's cooperation on stemming proliferation. President Clinton should tell Jiang Zemin that the United States will not proceed with future commercial space cooperation until China ends nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan. The Clinton Administration had considered giving China additional access to the U.S. civil space sector if it joined the Missile Technology Control Regime. Such an approach is wrong. China's good behavior must precede sharing the benefits of commercial space cooperation.

  • Tell China that its promotion of proliferation makes missile defense necessary for its neighbors. President Clinton should explain to Jiang Zemin that non-nuclear missile defenses are needed to stem nuclear proliferation in South and East Asia. China should end its opposition to cooperation in missile defense with U.S. friends and allies in Asia. It is in China's interest to see that its neighbors seek non-nuclear missile defenses, not nuclear deterrent forces.

  • Insist that military-to-military exchanges become more balanced. President Clinton should let Jiang Zemin know that military-to-military dialogue between China and the United States is useful so long as it is on equal footing. It is in the interest of the United States to sustain dialogue with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) for intelligence purposes and to inform PLA leaders of U.S. intent and military capabilities. This can be done, however, without giving the PLA greater access to U.S. interests, strategies, and military technology than China gives to the United States.

  • Advise Jiang Zemin that Congress, out of national security concerns, could restrict technology trade with China and with the PLA companies involved in such trade. Recent reports by the U.S. Department of Defense indicate that U.S. private-sector assistance to China's commercial satellite launch program may have illegally transferred technical information that could be used to improve the accuracy of China's intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such transfers put the national security of the United States at risk, and Congress may consider imposing sanctions on PLA companies to limit them.

Promoting Commercial Interests

It is fair to ask the reason that Americans should trade with a country that is accused of persecuting Christians, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and exporting goods made by slave labor. The answer: Expanding China's fledgling private sector through trade with the United States is an effective way to promote greater individual freedom in China. By trading with private Chinese citizens, Americans can erode the control and authority of the state and expand the economic and political freedoms of the Chinese people.

But trade policy alone cannot address all human rights and national security concerns. Specific abuses of human rights and threats to national and regional security should be addressed by specific measures. For example, a package of 11 bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1997 sought to improve monitoring of imports made by slave labor and U.S. Department of State reporting on religious persecution, as well as blocking visas for human rights violators involved in religious persecution and forced abortions and sterilization. The bills also increased funding for Radio Free Asia broadcasts into China and discouraged trade with the PLA. These concrete initiatives in the Policy For Freedom package of legislation addressed concerns that trade policy alone cannot solve.

Trade with China helps create jobs for Americans who work in export-oriented industries, expands individual freedom by reducing the role of the state in the economy, and draws China further into the international system. To achieve these benefits, at the summit President Clinton should:

  • Make clear his support for permanent most favored nation (MFN) status for China, and urge China to complete its World Trade Organization (WTO) accession protocols to make permanent MFN status possible. China must increase the transparency of its trade rules and regulations. Although Beijing has worked to reduce tariffs and to dismantle trade barriers, much more needs to be done to meet WTO standards. President Clinton should use the summit to impart a new dynamism to Sino-U.S. efforts to complete a bilateral accession agreement by the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting. China's accession to the WTO would advance its modernization efforts. At the same time, China's decisions to lower tariffs, eliminate nontariff barriers, and provide legal protection for commerce would advance U.S. commercial interests.

  • Praise China for maintaining the value of its currency during the recent Asian financial crisis. This decision helped to contain the spread of the crisis. President Clinton should urge Jiang Zemin to continue this policy. At the same time, however, he should note that Asian economies like Taiwan's that are open and transparent were better able to withstand the impact of the crisis than were the less-open and less-transparent "crony capitalist" economies. The implication for China is clear with respect to the market opening and transparency requirements of membership in the WTO, which China seeks.

  • Urge China to speed up legal reforms to extend the rule of law to all commercial transactions. China's development of a rule of law needs to be accelerated to meet the needs of its modernization program and to keep pace with the demands of today's global economy. Contracts need the certainty of legal enforcement, and personal property rights must enjoy firm legal protection. American legal expertise can help to strengthen the rule of law in China. President Clinton should work to institutionalize exchanges among leading law schools and legal scholars in the United States and China so that an ongoing dialogue on the rule of law takes place.

  • Urge China to expand access to China's market for U.S. business. For starters, this will serve to lessen the politically sensitive and growing U.S. trade imbalance with China. But a growing private-sector U.S. presence can benefit China, too. U.S. companies can employ Chinese citizens who would be displaced by the reform of China's inefficient and obsolete state-owned enterprise sector. Expanding the role of the private sector in China should be a key U.S. priority in helping China to develop economically and politically. In this regard, President Clinton should urge Jiang Zemin to reverse his government's decision to ban direct marketing by U.S. firms.

Encouraging Human Rights and Democratic Values

U.S. policy makers should protect and empower those abroad who share the fundamental beliefs of the United States in peace, freedom, and democracy. The efforts and accomplishments of freedom fighters and democracy builders in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China should not go unnoticed, and policymakers should find ways to offer recognition of and support for their efforts. In addition, the United States should seek to improve the quantity and quality of information going into and coming out of China, including substantive news. This would help to communicate American culture, concerns, and beliefs accurately to a wide audience in China, and help Americans to stay informed on important developments in China. U.S. policy should promote ways to expand personal freedoms in China, including religious liberty, and to quicken the pace of its political and economic reforms. To achieve those goals at the summit, President Clinton should:

  • Urge Beijing to relax controls on religious affairs. Americans and their elected representatives have been horrified by the reports of torture and abuse of Catholics who recognize papal authority and of home-based Christians who refuse to register with the government. President Clinton should warn Jiang Zemin that government suppression of religious beliefs will intensify internal instability, harm bilateral relations, and threaten the ability of the United States to assist with China's economic development. If China fails to heed this warning, the full force of the measures in the House's supermajority-approved Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, if approved by the Senate, should be applied.

  • Emphasize the importance of democratization to achieving a normal Sino-U.S. relationship. Relations between China and the United States will not be normal, and a real "strategic partnership" not possible, until the governing values of the two societies become more alike. President Clinton should declare his belief that democratization in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere helps to keep government close to the people and unleashes creative ideas to tackle tough public policy problems. China currently conducts direct, popular elections only at the lowest level of government. This franchise should be expanded to the county and provincial level.

  • Encourage Beijing to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Tibet issue. China's tight controls over politics and religion in Tibet have provoked internal resistance and international condemnation. Rhetoric demonizing the Dalai Lama should stop, and China should recognize that, even though its sovereignty over Tibet is secure, peace and stability in the region will not be realized without negotiating a settlement with the only leader trusted by Tibetans to represent their interests.

  • Support legislative and judicial exchange programs. China faces a daunting challenge in modernizing its legal system. Most of the disputes between the United States and China in the areas of human rights and religious persecution are rooted in China's lack of due process and the legal protection of property. Because China is late in taking on this challenge, it should draw on the experiences of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Europe, and the United States and thereby avoid the trials and errors made by these countries. The United States strongly should support legislative and judicial exchange programs that promote China's transition to the rule of law.

  • Welcome China's willingness to sign the two United Nations human rights covenants, but urge China to ratify them and implement their provisions promptly. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights emphasize the universality of certain fundamental human rights. China has made a commitment to Hong Kong that it will apply the standards outlined in these covenants to the people of Hong Kong. Once ratified, these covenants will oblige China to observe and protect these universal human rights throughout the country.

Supporting Dialogue and Restraint with Taiwan

At the summit, President Clinton should be clear in pointing out that current U.S. policies toward Taiwan are based on the three official communiqués between Washington and Beijing, and by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Within this context, the President should speak so as to leave no doubt that the policy of the United States toward the issue of Taiwan is to:

  • Encourage China and Taiwan to resolve their differences peacefully. The conflict between China and Taiwan has a long history and involves many complex issues. There is no simple solution. Wisely, the United States has avoided getting in the middle of this conflict by playing a mediating role, stating instead that the conflict should be resolved peacefully by the Chinese themselves. The only path to a peaceful resolution of this standoff is promoting freedom and democracy on the mainland, not censoring free speech in Taiwan. The United States can support any mutually acceptable resolution of outstanding differences that does not limit individual freedom or political democracy.

China repeatedly has pressed the United States for a fourth communiqué to address relations with Taiwan. At the summit, President Clinton should refuse, emphasizing that the three Sino-U.S. communiqués, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act, were premised on China's pursuing peaceful relations with Taiwan.

  • Maintain Taiwan's military capability to resist the use of force or any other form of coercion that would jeopardize its security or social and economic system. President Clinton should emphasize that the Taiwan Relations Act states that any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by anything but peaceful means is a threat to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region, and a grave concern of the United States. The fate of Taiwan's democracy is a special concern for the United States, and the U.S. response during the Taiwan Strait crisis of March 1996 should stand as a reminder to both China and Taiwan of the U.S. commitment. The President should reinforce the commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act that the United States will continue to sell Taiwan arms of a defensive nature to help to maintain its self-defense capability. The resumption of cross-strait dialogue is important, but it should not impose a constraint on the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

Supporting Democratic Efforts in Hong Kong

On July 1, 1997, Great Britain officially ceded sovereignty over the territory of Hong Kong to China. This transfer of sovereignty was the result of negotiations between Britain and China during the 1980s. The key product of these negotiations was the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which promised that Hong Kong's people would rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy. The United States recognized the Joint Declaration as an international treaty in the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. It is, therefore, a matter of international law that both parties to this treaty abide by the solemn obligations undertaken in the Joint Declaration. To make sure that Hong Kong's economic and political autonomy continue, President Clinton should:

  • Urge China to make clear to the people of Hong Kong that the pace of democratization in Hong Kong is for them to decide. Hong Kong's government seems to believe that accelerating the pace of democratization would stray from the dictates of the Basic Law (Hong Kong's quasi-constitution passed by China's National People's Congress in 1990). The Basic Law, however, incorporates China's Joint Declaration commitments into Hong Kong's common law system. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law state that the "ultimate aim" is the election of the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council by "universal suffrage." If the people want to accelerate the path toward this "ultimate aim," then the government of Hong Kong should be free to respond to their demands without fear of violating the spirit or the letter of the Basic Law.


Relations with China, considering its vast size, economic dynamism, and military potential, are of critical importance to the United States. Yet China's own actions have raised serious political concerns among the American public, calling into question the very nature of China's relations with the United States. Thus, it is important that the upcoming summit between Presidents Clinton and Jiang not simply serve as a stage for a photo opportunity. President Clinton can use the summit to explain clearly U.S. concerns and priority interests in relations with China and to present China's leadership with a roadmap to achieving an improved relationship between the United States and China.

Richard D. Fisher is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

Robert P. O'Quinn is a former Policy Analyst for International Economics and Trade in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

James J. Przystup is former Director of the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

Stephen J. Yates is a former Policy Analyst for China in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.