Congress and the Dragon

March 6, 2008 Topic: Politics Tags: Diplomacy

Congress and the Dragon

Co-founders of the U.S.-China Working Group give the Hill's take on our relationship with the East Asian giant.

Continued engagement with China is critical, according to Representatives Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Rick Larsen (D-WA), co-founders and co-chairs of Congress's U.S.-China Working Group. And, as Larsen and Kirk stressed at a roundtable at the Nixon Center on March 6, there are ample opportunities for closer and more effective cooperation. Not only can Beijing learn from the rest of the world, but we could also benefit from working with China. With elections in the United States and Taiwan, the next round of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) and China's summer sports showcase, the coming year will provide many opportunities.

But, as Kirk noted, within Congress and the U.S. government, there is still a "cultural affinity for democracies" and "across the board . . . there is just a lack of dialogue at a basic level if you're dealing with someone that hasn't been elected." Chinese officials don't have to answer to an electorate or go through a "searing" electoral process, which means that a fundamental commonality is missing. And that makes bridging the gap all the more difficult.

Despite the struggles, both Kirk and Larsen stressed the need for dialogue. Efforts to encourage China to be a responsible stakeholder in the realm of economics should be applied to security and military matters as well. We cannot force China to make changes in its policies. And even though China has made its strategy more transparent, U.S. policy makers remain unsure about Beijing's intentions. To clarify the situation, we can engage Beijing in an attempt to involve them in the international community.

One area where engagement is necessary and has had positive results is talks with North Korea. When it comes to understanding and shaping Pyongyang's actions, Representative Kirk said that U.S. "dependence upon China is complete." In particular, the use of North Korea's reliance on Chinese energy has been "quietly, utterly decisive" in pushing along talks with Pyongyang.

When North Korea performed a missile test in the summer of 2006, top-level U.S. officials attempted to contact their Chinese counterparts to clarify the nature of the launches. The results showed the necessity of maintaining lines of communication with China: U.S. officials couldn't seem to get a hold of senior Chinese officials. A telephone hotline between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense was recently established to help quickly clear up any accidental or non-threatening actions in the future, Kirk noted.

An area of seemingly boundless opportunities for cooperation is space. But China's anti-satellite tests last January threw many nascent efforts off track and dissipated much of the goodwill toward China that had built up in Congress. Kirk said the United States and China are "drifting further apart on space than ever before." Larsen added that the missiles "blew up near-term cooperation with China on space" in addition to blowing up a satellite.

The Chinese underestimated the ramifications the test would have and the degree to which the launches would impact the Pentagon's attitude and strategy, Kirk stressed. And the tests have made the path for discussions of a joint docking ring on the international space station, which could make space safer for everyone, even more difficult.

But the Chinese are moving forward on their own. Beijing is actively selling its space program domestically and internationally, Larsen reflected when recalling a recent visit to China. The Chinese government is promoting its efforts and its modern Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Inner Mongolia to every country that is open to cooperation.

And that means, according to Larsen, that the U.S. government needs to take a close look at its policy to make sure this new frontier is safe for us and our strategy reflects reality.

Another area where the international community faces changing realities is climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, Kirk said, is outdated and ineffective. When the accord was drawn up, the United States was the world's primary polluter. These days, China has taken over the top spot. It will be impossible to tackle the problems facing the environment without involving the thirsty dragon.

The Chinese do recognize that they are unable to keep the environmental damage of their practices in check, Larsen said. Beijing has expressed a desire to slow down their economy and to attempt to cap inflation. And there is great potential for the United States to cooperate with the Chinese in this area, promoting new technologies and energy efficiency.

This is an area in which the next U.S. administration will certainly seek to make advances. A bill authored by Congressman Steve Israel, The United States-China Energy Cooperation Act of 2007, which focuses on climate change and energy policy will hopefully provide good groundwork for joint action and advancement.

Economically, Larsen and Kirk hope that the current administration's Strategic Economic Dialogue with China and high-level exchanges with Chinese officials continue. For that reason, the U.S.-China Working Group has requested that representatives of presidential candidates McCain, Obama and Clinton be permitted to formally attend the last session of the SED. This will ensure, and demonstrate to the Chinese, that the continuity, regularity and inclusiveness of dialogue as established by the SED will be maintained.

There is no advantage to legislation that seeks to affect the Chinese currency, strengthen sanctions against China and bolster other trade-enforcement mechanisms in Larsen's opinion. China's likely response would be a trade war, which could damage U.S. businesses. Instead, the United States should encourage China to play by international trade rules and apply "continual, sustained pressure" on China to reform its currency and financial policies.

And Kirk said that when it comes to efforts at combating "non-traditional security threats," including terrorism, opium production in Afghanistan and drug trafficking, U.S. and Chinese interests are "exactly aligned." Not only is China facing growing military conflict and tension in the region, but Afghanistan is now the number one supplier of heroin to China. Larsen added that U.S. and Chinese methods for tackling the drug problem are also very similar.

Taiwan could remain a sticking point. When it comes to Taiwan, Larsen said, the United States is analogous to a child trying to chose which kind of ice cream it wants. The child can have either chocolate or vanilla, but wants both. The United States can seemingly have either cross-strait stability or democracy in Taiwan, but wants and believes it can have both. The dynamics may change with a new administration, but these underlying desires will remain, potentially fostering tension.

To move past problem areas, Larsen and Kirk promote dialogue and, through the congressional U.S.-China Working Group, seek to provide an open forum for frank and honest discussion of the Sino-American relationship, encompassing a broad range of views on the topic. But the sentiment toward China within Congress is varied. In many cases, due to issues like cyber attacks ("all congressman" are aware that over 90 percent of them come from China), the opacity of China's military budget and uncertainty regarding the degree of control Beijing has over its growing strategic arsenal, members are wary of China.

And, as Kirk noted, inaccuracies about Chinese policy are still pervasive. It is perfectly fine to criticize China if the criticisms are accurate, but errors and inaccuracies can be especially costly when dealing with such a large and important actor as China.

Representatives Larsen and Kirk hope the group's sentiment of dialogue will spread to and grow under the next U.S. administration, leading to better understanding on both sides of the Pacific.

Rebecca N. White is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.