February 18, 2009 | WebMemo on Asia
Secretary Clinton's Asia Trip: Getting China Right
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to China (February
20-22) caps off her groundbreaking first official trip abroad. By
visiting Asia first, Clinton has provided an encouraging sign that
she understands the region's importance to America's future and the
central role that American leadership plays there.
In her speech to the Asia Society prior to departure, Clinton
described her mission as discussing "how the United States is
committed to a new era of diplomacy and development in which we use
smart power ... to find regional and global solutions to common
global problems." With regard to China, she emphasized "how
essential it is that we have a positive, cooperative
It is important to approach China with a strategy designed to
achieve clear objectives.
As she attempts to do so, it will be useful for Clinton to
consider the approach of prior Administrations. In particular, the
United States would do well to return to core elements of Ronald
Reagan's approach to engagement with China.
What Would Reagan Do?
Reagan set the standard for engaging China in a way that
demonstrated respect for the legitimate aspirations of China's
people, projected absolute confidence in American ideals and power
(and was prepared to use it), and welcomed cooperation with China
while insisting on measurable results. He focused more on what
governments do than what they say. He also clearly interpreted
America's commitment on cross-Strait issues to be conditioned
absolutely on the peaceful resolution of differences, focusing on
the process and avoiding discussion of outcomes.
Perhaps most important for the new Administration to consider,
Reagan's approach proved that a broad majority of Americans favor
sustained engagement with China so long as doing so helps to deal
with the dominant security challenges facing this nation and
engagement supports expansion of economic and other freedoms in
China with minimal negative impact on U.S. interests elsewhere.
The Way to Engage China
To sustain broad American support for engagement with China,
- Honestly evaluate Chinese "cooperation" to date. Clinton
has identified the gravest global threats confronting America as
"financial instability and economic dislocation, terrorism and
weapons of mass destruction, food security and health emergencies,
climate change and energy vulnerability, [and] stateless criminal
cartels and human exploitation." This list is fine as far as it
goes. The Bush Administration was also mindful of these priorities.
But before it seeks to expand a "partnership" with China, the Obama
Administration should carefully examine progress on the commitments
and areas of cooperation already identified. With regard to
countries of greatest concern to the United States--North Korea,
Iran, Sudan, Burma--the Chinese record is decidedly poor.
- Develop and maintain a strong, comprehensive deterrent
against bad Chinese behavior. Is China paying a price for
failing to uphold commitments or otherwise hindering U.S. global
priorities? An answer to this question should define the
fundamental nature of U.S.-China relations--whether the nations are
partners, rivals, or something in between. The United States needs
to get beyond "hedging." And it needs to focus on more than just
the military threat facing Taiwan. It must increase the price of
bad Chinese behavior on a broader scale. China's commercial and
diplomatic goals in southeast Asia ought not be compatible with
supporting a regime weighing down the region's development and
global orientation. Beijing's claims to the South China Sea and
border disputes with India should not be allowed to sleep quietly
only to arise under more advantageous circumstances. Nor should
China get away with the pretense of "responsible stakeholder" at
the same time it is running diplomatic interference for the likes
of regimes in Iran and Sudan.
- Focus on the need for China to address uncertainty about its
current and future direction. There is a general lack of
transparency in China's domestic governance that amplifies concerns
in a wide range of areas: the solvency of its financial
institutions, the management of its currency, the mission behind
its military modernization, whether there will be meaningful
progress on civil and political rights, and the relationship China
ultimately seeks with its neighbors and the U.S. The burden should
be kept squarely on Beijing to be more open and to address these
- Encourage the expansion of economic freedom in China but
recognize that prosperity alone will not lead to political freedom
or regional peace. The Chinese people should know that the U.S.
supports their desire to improve their quality of life. But with
free-market reform in China essentially suspended, China's
simultaneous resistance to democracy and massive military
modernization leaves open the question of whether international
trade and investment will "socialize" China's evolution into a
status quo power or empower China to mount a stronger challenge to
the current international system.
- Demonstrate respect for Taiwan's democracy. For there to
be a peaceful resolution to differences across the Taiwan Strait,
Beijing must find a way to accommodate and appropriately engage
Taiwan's democratic system. As an example to Beijing, the U.S.
needs to find ways to more openly engage Taiwan's democratic
leaders. This does not require a change of policy or head of state
meetings. Senior envoys, phone and videoconferences, strategic
public remarks, and less restrictive visits to the U.S. (even if
not to Washington) are among the many means to consider. Such
engagement should be pursued in a way that promotes Taiwan as a
democracy, focuses on advancing real policy objectives, and is
defensible as part of an effort to avoid conflict and promote
positive development on both sides of the Strait. Nothing can be
more important to setting clear parameters on relations with China
than strict adherence to the word and spirit of the Taiwan
Relations Act. Even as the relationship between Taiwan and China
improves, it is important that America provide Taiwan the support
that will allow it to determine the pace and conditions of that
- Exhibit strong, respectful, results-oriented leadership.
There is no question that the U.S. and China can and must work
together on many of the major issues of the early 21st century.
Progress in one area does not excuse China's shortcomings in other
areas any more than it does for other countries, including the U.S.
Strong leaders, like Ronald Reagan, are among the most effective in
dealing with China because they respect the legitimate aspirations
of the Chinese people and the responsibilities their government has
to their people but at the same time are honest and straightforward
about areas that need to change. Strong leaders are also effective
in dealing with China because Chinese leaders know they will
benefit from cooperation and fear the consequences of disagreement
Speak Plainly, Seek Results
In the end, the most important advice for getting China right is
the simplest: speak plainly while seeking results. The new
Administration should clearly communicate the kind of relationship
it seeks from China, what it expects in return, and what it is
prepared to deliver, both positive and negative. What is needed is
a more business-like approach rather than the one that has
prevailed for far too long, one that is captive to diplomatic
jargon and falls short of telling America, her friends, and even
the Chinese themselves what the U.S. expects and what it is
prepared to do to realize those expectations.
Stephen Yates is a Visiting Fellow
in, and Walter Lohman is Director of, the Asian Studies
Center at The Heritage Foundation.