China: What Engagement Should Mean

December 1, 1996 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: Chinese Nationalism

China: What Engagement Should Mean

Mini Teaser: The challenge of an ascendant China now requires a consistent, steady, long-term view.

by Author(s): Robert B. Zoellick

Even absent these problems, China's very size would make it a
challenging economic partner. When the Chinese economic elephant
changes course, those in the way may easily get trampled. For
example, China is already the world's largest importer of sugar and
cooking oil, and before long it could become the biggest importer of
wheat, corn, barley, and cotton. Governmental actions, or even market
disruptions, affecting these imports could throw global markets into
turmoil. Similarly, imagine the ramifications of a Mexico-style
financial crisis in China, or a breakdown in Hong Kong that triggers
capital flight.

The point of citing these possibilities is not to denigrate China's
amazing movement toward market economics, its astounding record of
growth, or its positive potential. Indeed, the United States can
benefit significantly from trade and investment with China. Much of
China's import demand is a good match for sectors in which the United
States has a comparative advantage--such as capital goods, machinery
and equipment, chemicals, and aircraft. China's exports to the United
States, in turn, enable the United States to pay less for
products--such as light manufactures, toys, footwear, and
apparel--that in significant part it would import from other third
countries. In addition, the economic reform process is likely to
increase pressure to develop the rule of law in China, expand the
scope of private sector activity, and enhance freedoms associated
with both those developments.

Nevertheless, ad hoc economic engagement, in the context of China's
difficult adjustment process, is likely to trigger a host of highly
specific complaints from U.S. interests, and, as usual, the "squeaky
wheels" will get the most attention. The standard U.S. government
response, absent an integrating strategy, will be to make narrow
case-by-case demands through bilateral channels. This combination is
likely to lead to a series of public, acrimonious disputes in
one-on-one face-offs, leaving all parties frustrated and angry.
Ongoing conflicts could have larger consequences: If two of the
largest economies fail to get along, the effects are likely to be
damaging both to one another and to the rest of the world.

The United States and China face similar risks in the area of
security. China can influence security issues as diverse as the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, North
Korea, regional security arrangements, territorial disputes over land
and sea in Asia, the effective working of the UN Security Council,
Mideast conflicts and peace processes, and global climate change--to
name just a few topics. But a policy of security engagement is likely
to produce conflict if it just takes the form of a long laundry list
of actions the United States would like China to take.

A Strategic Approach

The United States needs a strategy for engagement that will integrate
China within regional and global security, economic, and political
systems. This strategy should have two elements at its core. First,
the United States, China, and others need to maintain a stable
security context in the Asia-Pacific so that states do not resort to
armed conflict or threats of force to resolve disputes with peaceful
countries. Second, the United States and others need to demonstrate
to China the mutual advantages that flow from full participation in
world market arrangements. In effect, the security objective is to
maintain the peaceful balance that has been a prerequisite for
achieving dynamic economic growth, which in turn can strengthen the
development of common interests, broaden networks of private ties,
and promote a civil society premised on basic rules of behavior. Over
time, the economic connections may create political and private ties
that establish a basis for moving beyond a security balance toward
cooperation and partnership. In the meantime, however, the balance in
security relations meets everyone's baseline interests.

To reach an understanding with China on the nature of security and
stability in the Asia Pacific, the United States needs discussions
with China that differ from the interactions of recent years. The
United States should initiate this dialogue by explaining its
security interests and strategy in the region and by inviting China
to do likewise. More specifically, the United States should explain
its interest in avoiding the domination of East Asia by any power or
group of powers hostile to the United States. We also want to
preserve the freedom of maritime and air transit across, around, and
beyond the Pacific.

The United States should explain to China that it has entered into
defensive treaty obligations with Japan, South Korea, the
Philippines, Thailand, and Australia to support this interest in
stability, not to pursue aggressive ends. To be able to carry out its
obligations as a Pacific power, the United States has maintained a
naval and military presence in the region for almost a century. Over
time, China may expect the United States to seek to increase the
mutual commitment of, and to share the responsibilities with, allies
and other friendly states. America welcomes efforts by other Pacific
nations, such as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
Regional Forum, to encourage cooperation, reduce suspicions, and
resolve disputes.

The United States should point out to China that U.S. commitments to
Japan are designed to assure Japan that its security is linked to
that of the United States. The U.S.-Japan alliance precludes a need
for Japan to develop a unilateral approach to its security. The
United States expects to work closely with Japan as that country
increases its contribution to the security system from which it

The United States should reiterate to China that U.S. security
arrangements with the Republic of Korea have been, and remain,
defensive. One of America's current challenges is to promote
cooperative relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan, China,
and Russia, so that if there should be a crisis in North-South
relations, the international context would be conducive to a
constructive response.

China's interests should not be threatened by this security strategy.
A flexible policy of balancing provides the conditions for
cooperation; it is vastly different from a rigid effort at
containment, which would not succeed. Indeed, as China concentrates
on its internal development, it should welcome regional stability and
the avoidance of contests for dominance.

The prerequisite for China, however, will be a continuation of the
American "one China" policy. China's fundamental interest is its
territorial integrity, including Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong. The
UnitedStates should reassure China on this key point, as long as
China acts peacefully. With Taiwan in particular, the United States
will meet its obligations and will want to continue peaceful economic
and private ties. These contacts are not a threat to China, and in
fact provide an assurance that enables China and Taiwan to pursue a
closer relationship.

The United States should also address its concern about the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially to countries
threatening their neighbors. To the degree the United States can
demonstrate multilateral support for its proliferation policies,
China is more likely to be receptive, as it has been with the nuclear
test ban treaty. Where the United States is compelled to act alone,
it should brief China privately as to why it is doing so. The habit
of serious consultation will minimize the likelihood of Chinese
miscalculations about American purposes. A pattern of serious,
high-level security discussions also grants China the respect it
believes it deserves. By paying attention to China, the United States
will be better positioned to indicate to it which security matters
are especially important and which Chinese actions will trigger a
strong American response.

This strategy for security engagement with China depends principally
on bilateral contacts, although it has multilateral dimensions. It
should be complemented by a strategy for economic engagement that
relies principally on multilateral diplomacy, supported by certain
bilateral actions. The United States should work with Europe, Japan,
and others in the Asia Pacific to bring China and Taiwan into the
institutions and regimes of the international market economy. We want
China to accept the rules. We want China to perceive that adherence
to norms of behavior will benefit it as well as others. And we want
China to recognize that these requirements are not a form of American
political diktat, but rather are the principles of a system designed
for mutual advantage.

China's acceptance of these rules and norms will also shape its
internal development, including the advancement of the rule of law.
By linking self-interest to certain policies, the United States and
others might strengthen the arguments of China's reformers. China's
membership in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and
the Asian Development Bank has already helped it to move toward a
market economy. Opening up the world to more of the Chinese people
will have the effect of enabling more Chinese to see the advantages
of liberty and tolerance.

At the same time, the terms of China's entrance into the
international economic system need to recognize China's protracted
transition. As Americans have learned through bilateral agreements
with China on market access and intellectual property, the United
States will be best able to affect long-term policies there by
working with China to accept both core principles and an ongoing
system to apply those principles. The targets of attention will
evolve as its economy adapts, as we learn more about impediments to
trade, and as it develops internal constituencies with interests in
the application of the principles. Given this ongoing process, it
would be prudent to have terms of accession to international
organizations that reasonably phase in China's participation and
benefits. In effect, the United States and others in the world need a
series of mutually beneficial "executory contracts" with China, so
that all sides have interests in performance, adaptation, and the
custom of working out an agreed response to the inevitable bumps in
the road.

Essay Types: Essay