Executive Summary: Time for Washington to Take a Realistic Look at China Policy

Report China

Executive Summary: Time for Washington to Take a Realistic Look at China Policy

December 22, 2003 4 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

In the aftermath of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's December 8-10 visit to the United States, the Administration and Congress have an opportunity to reassess the U.S.-China relationship and dispel the myths that color the U.S. view of China's role in Asia.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently noted that "neither we nor the Chinese leadership anymore believe that there is anything inevitable about our relationship--either inevitably bad or inevitably good," but this candor was swamped by President George W. Bush's description of China as a "partner in diplomacy working to meet the dangers of the 21st century." On China, irrational exuberance is counterproductive.

The Administration and Congress should reexamine China policy and the myths that led to the abandonment of a successful pre-September 11 approach for a policy of conciliation and compromise that has yielded little beyond rhetoric.

China Myths. The United States should recognize that China:

  • Has stepped up threats against democratic Taiwan,
  • Has not been a significant "partner" in the war on terrorism,
  • Was not helpful during the Iraq War,
  • Fully supports North Korea in its tense nuclear negotiations with the U.S.,
  • Is the world's premier proliferator of dangerous weapon technologies,
  • Continues its pattern of severe human rights abuses, and
  • Is likely to force another maritime confrontation with the U.S. in the South China Sea.

Taiwan. A relentless Chinese campaign isolated Taiwan from international efforts against the SARS epidemic. Now, as Taiwan moves to hold a referendum to express its indignation, China threatens war, declaring that a "referendum" is tantamount to "independence." Democratic, self-governing Taiwan has been a U.S. ally for over 50 years. China seeks to bring Taiwan under its control to demonstrate communism's supremacy over democracy and undermine the confidence of other Asian democracies in America's regional leadership.

Terrorism. Beijing has not helped significantly in the war on terrorism. It remains suspicious of the U.S. presence in Central Asia and has warned the U.S. that "counter-terrorism should not be used to practice hegemony." U.S.-China cooperation in the war on terrorism has been one-way, with Americans supplying intelligence to China but getting little in return.

Iraq. China has worked against subsequent U.S.-drafted resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, and China's official press has called U.S. actions in Iraq "nothing short of a war crime."

North Korea. Washington may still believe that Beijing can move Pyongyang in its direction, but Beijing has only tried to move the U.S. in North Korea's direction. In fact, China has consistently supported all North Korean demands in the "six-party talks," and China's official view is that "the main problem we are facing" is not North Korea, but "the American policy towards [the] DPRK."

Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction . The CIA has said that China's actions not only "continue to be inimical...to our interests, but [also] stimulate secondary activities that only complicate the threat that we face, our forces face and our allies face, particularly in the Middle East," and that "in some instances these activities are condoned by the government."

Human Rights. In the 14 years since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, every annual State Department human rights report has noted that the Chinese "government's poor human rights record worsened" or "remained poor."

Maritime Incidents . Chinese forces continue to harass U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace. Given the Chinese government's inability to manage crises effectively and China's increasingly aggressive behavior, maritime incidents are potentially the most volatile issue in U.S.-China relations.

Military Expansion. The Pentagon's annual report on China's military power estimates military spending at $65 billion--the world's second largest military budget. China's military doctrine envisions the U.S. as its most likely adversary in any future war scenarios, especially those involving Taiwan.

The Administration should:

  • Reassess America's strategic interests in the Western Pacific with respect to China's role as a friend, a neutral, or--as is often the case--an adversary.
  • Make democratic reform in China the top priority of America's China policy.
  • Firmly adhere to America's 50-year-old policy of dismissing China's claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
  • Be publicly candid about China's behavior and avoid painting U.S.-China relations in undeservedly glowing terms.
  • Hold China to results-based standards rather than trade U.S. concessions for China's promises to improve.
  • View China's threats to Taiwan in the context of Secretary Powell's benchmark: "Whether China chooses peace or coercion to resolve its differences with Taiwan will tell us a great deal about the kind of relationship China seeks not only with its neighbors, but with us."

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


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow