Go Ahead and Appease China—It's the Right Thing to Do


If you ever run for President, and if you happen to be of the party that is out of power, there are some things you will need to do. You will need to raise money, file documents, eat bad food, travel to peculiar places, and attack the incumbent Administration for being soft on China. It is pointless to imagine that you can escape any of these chores. If you do get yourself elected, however, you must now follow your predecessor's China policy and await your own turn to be attacked, in the next election, for being soft on China.

In 1977, as James Mann notes in About Face, his admirable history of America's relationship with China, President Carter came to office saying that "we should not ass-kiss [the Chinese] the way Nixon and Kissinger did." Whereupon Carter cut official ties with Taiwan, normalized relations with the mainland, established military cooperation, sold advanced technology to Beijing, and ignored Chinese human rights abuses. In 1976, Ronald Reagan opposed normalizing relations with China; in 1980, he described the Chinese regime as "a statist monopoly founded on violence and propaganda." By 1984, when he was President, he was calling China a "so-called Communist country."

In 1978, during his first presidential run, George Bush attacked Carter for selling out Taiwan. "China needs us more than we need them," he said. By 1989, his aides were famously clinking goblets with the Tiananmen butchers. In 1991, Bill Clinton attacked Bush: "The Administration continues to coddle China, despite its continuing crackdown on democratic reform." By 1994, Clinton was lobbying Congress not to tie China's trade privileges to human rights.

The litany is worth remembering as today's Republican presidential candidates do what they must do. George W. Bush says he will treat China as a competitor, not a strategic partner; its government, he says, "can be alarming abroad and appalling at home." John McCain demands stronger signals that China had better keep its hands off Taiwan: "Engagement is not surrender."

Over on the Republicans' right, Gary Bauer cries that "the days of appeasement must end." To the Clinton Administration's recent deal admitting China to the World Trade Organization, Steve Forbes says: "Beijing hasn't earned it, and we shouldn't give it. Period." Here, finally, is a reason to hope for the election of a Forbes-Bauer ticket. What fun it would be to watch them eat their words as they, too, followed the course that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger set in 1972.

Nixon was a very bad President who got only one thing right: China. He and Kissinger put in place a policy that accepted a certain amount of egregious Chinese conduct in exchange for a certain amount of opportunistic Chinese cooperation. In some respects their policy has worn poorly. The Soviet threat that Nixon sought to balance is gone; Taiwan is a democracy. The Chinese threaten Taiwan, throw tantrums (as when their Belgrade embassy was accidentally bombed), steal nuclear secrets, and persecute dissenters and religious groups. Thousands of members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect have been arrested and detained, and hundreds sent to labor camps.

So critics of engaging ("appeasing") China have a case. The policy is flawed. What they do not have is either of two things: first, any plausible evidence that the policy has failed; second, any better ideas.

China's government is ideologically totalitarian, politically repressive, and morally corrupt. On the other hand, consider what the Chinese government did not do this year: Arrest 100,000 or so Falun Gong members or sympathizers and shoot them. Critics of America's China policy have short memories. They forget that Mao killed perhaps 30 million people in his Great Leap Forward. Today's total of 2,000 or so Chinese political prisoners, notes Catharin E. Dalpino, a former deputy secretary of State for human rights who is now at the Brookings Institution, compares with hundreds of thousands jailed, and millions more terrorized, during the Cultural Revolution. What, one wonders, has China done lately to match the Russian bombardment of Chechnya's civilian population?

"There is no evidence that the current policy is having any of the results claimed for it," says Bauer. No evidence of any results? On what planet? Today's China looks more like the South Korea of 15 years ago than like the North Korea of today. The Chinese have a long way to go; but if domesticating a savage regime is a policy goal, then the Nixonian policy cannot be judged anything but a triumph.

Perhaps the policy has stopped working. Plainly, the Chinese oligarchs have no intention of liberalizing any further. Besides, America no longer needs China to balance Russia. So maybe the old policy is out of gas. It's possible. But not probable.

At the core of the China policy is a bet: that, over the long haul–which is the only haul that counts when one is talking about a country with a 3,500-year history of continuously repressive rule–economic development will lead toward social liberalization. The new WTO deal commits China to letting foreigners provide Internet service–this in a country that, as The New York Times noted recently, "only a few years ago strictly controlled who could own radios."

A country full of satellite dishes and cell phones and fax machines and Internet users and Western imports is not as easy to oppress as a country of villagers in rags and cadres in Mao suits. The Chinese dictators know this, but are betting against history. They believe they can succeed where the Soviets failed, by opening their economy while keeping their politics closed. They view rising wages as the opium of the people.

Even if they are right, the result is certainly a better sort of Marxism than the Maoist or Stalinist sort: hardly a failure of the China policy. But they are probably wrong. In China's back yard, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan itself are examples of countries driven by the logic of commerce toward political freedom.

The cheapest standard shot at the China policy, therefore, is to dismiss it as simple venality. As in: The Clinton Administration has sold its China policy to business interests with fat wallets and slick lobbyists.

No doubt, there is money to be made in China, a lot of it, and American companies want to be there making it, and will pay politicians handsomely for the privilege. China, though, is a case in which economic self-interest and good policy walk hand in hand. The WTO deal clarifies the point. When China at least claims to accept the WTO's principles of (mostly) free trade, is it more likely to sabotage peace and stability in the region or the world, or less so? More likely to throw citizens into the gulags and deny basic personal and property rights, or less so? More insular and anti-Western, or less so?

The fact that American business benefits from a policy that strives to entangle China in the world economy does not justify that policy. But neither does it invalidate the policy. Surely, indeed, the fact that the policy serves America's geopolitical and economic interests simultaneously is a point in its favor.

The critics of engaging ("appeasing") China might yet have a point if they had a better idea. The Taiwan policy, for instance, is incoherent, hypocritical, and unfair. It forces Taiwan to pretend to be less than a sovereign democratic state and denies Taiwan the rightful prerogatives of such a state, while kowtowing to the bullying mainland.

On the other hand, the Taiwan policy, like the China policy as a whole, bets, sensibly, that time is on the West's side. If that bet is correct, then placating today's China will pay off when tomorrow's China becomes less bellicose or more democratic. "Constructive ambiguity" on Taiwan boasts the further advantage of reflecting a deeper, real-world ambiguity: Americans are not unambiguously willing to go to war with China (which is not Serbia or Iraq) over Taiwan. Even if Americans were willing to fight for Taiwan, an American victory–possibly destabilizing the whole region–might be as disastrous as an American defeat. Under the circumstances, smoothing China's feathers to buy time makes sense. Which is why that is what President, say, McCain, as opposed to Candidate McCain, would do.

If China were to invade Taiwan, turn imperialist, or regress toward Maoism, that would mean that the Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton policy had failed. Right now, however, the Chinese calibrate their tantrums and outrages with care, always returning to the bargaining table and signaling that, at the end of the day, they want to deal. As long as that is the case, and as long as things improve in China and with China over spans of decades (not weeks or months), America should play. And will.