Expansion of NATO—or, as its advocates now prefer to term it, NATO enlargement—is the most important international issue on the agenda today. Yet it has received far too little real consideration. Support in Washington and most other NATO capitals seems widespread, but it is not deep. The issue did not figure in the fall U.S. election campaign, mainly because the idea was endorsed by both presidential candidates, in speeches to audiences in states with a political constituency of Americans of Polish, Czech, and Hungarian descent. In July, NATO will presumably announce its readiness to open negotiations with three Central European countries eager to enter NATO and considered most appropriate—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. A promise will be made that others, as yet unchosen, will follow.
NATO was a great success story of the Cold War, so why not build on that success? For a few years, from 1990 until 1994, it was generally agreed that NATO must transform itself in the post-Cold War world, but that transforming a military alliance inherited from an era of confrontation of contending blocs was best done by changing its role, rather than by taking in new members. When the Paris Charter of Europe in 1990 marked the end of the Cold War, NATO had a border running through Central Europe. That border, however, was an unavoidable legacy of the Cold War. To create new lines of division of Europe by enlarging NATO to the East would not be explicable as an inheritance. New security arrangements could best be handled, it was thought, through individually differentiated agreements with non-NATO countries, through a Partnership for Peace (PFP) with each country that so desired, without creating a new and enlarged bloc. The PFP was launched at the start of 1994. But before it could prove itself (as indeed it has), the United States, which had sponsored it, suddenly endorsed expansion of NATO membership. Why?
The sudden shift had three principal sources. First, the political leaders of several former Communist Central and Eastern European states, above all in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest, were impatient to enter (Western) Europe, and the road to membership in the European Union looked steep and long. NATO membership seemed the best path. The PFP was no substitute. Moreover, they harbored fears of future Russian pressures and wanted the security blanket assurances of Article V. Second, some (not all) German leaders decided that German economic expansion into East-Central Europe would be most palatable in the framework of a multilateral redefinition of relationships. Again NATO was more feasible than the EU, and the PFP was irrelevant. Finally and most decisive, President Clinton was persuaded by those in his administration, initially a minority, who favored an enlargement of NATO as the best vehicle to revivify and transform the alliance—and thereby to preserve and enhance the one institution that gave the American voice in Europe its greatest resonance. That it appealed to a vocal domestic political constituency was an added advantage. Even more important, it could represent an American initiative and a success story in the alliance and at home.
Ironically, extending NATO’s protective umbrella to Central Europe against a possible resurgent Russian threat was regarded as an easy step precisely because it was understood that there was no real likelihood of Russian military aggression against any of its western neighbors, so that extending the U.S. and NATO commitment carried no real risk, while it would reassure the East-Central Europeans and gain their gratitude and support.
It was, of course, recognized that the Russians, who were just overcoming doubts and joining the Partnership for Peace, would not like it. But the advocates of NATO expansion believed that because the Russians could not really do anything about it, they would simply have to reconcile themselves to it. Moreover, we could facilitate that reluctant acceptance by rhetorical reassurances and various steps to assuage hurt Russian feelings by elaborating cooperative relations between NATO and Russia.
Opposition to expansion of NATO is, regrettably, the one thing on which virtually all Russian political figures can agree. As Russian leaders began to voice objections, it became necessary to mount counter-arguments. One argument was that enlargement of NATO would enhance stability in East-Central Europe and would strengthen political democratization and economic marketization, all of which would be in the interests not only of the countries involved, but of the West and Russia too. Of course, if the main aim was to enhance stability by reinforcing nascent democratization and economic reform, highest priority should presumably have been given to bringing Russia and Ukraine into NATO. The second argument was that while Russia today was no threat, the Russia of tomorrow was uncertain, and enlargement of NATO would reassure its new members against possible future dangers. The Russian parliamentary elections of December 1993, in which the erratic nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communists did better than expected, gave a boost to that rationale for NATO enlargement in Western as well as Eastern Europe.
The argument that NATO enlargement would be a hedge against aggressive inclinations of a resurgent Russia would appeal to those countries brought into NATO, but what of the many East-Central European, Balkan, and Baltic states not brought into NATO (at least not in the coming years)? They were being promised less security by drawing a new dividing line, because rather than a general NATO interest in security for all the countries of the region, a few were to be selected for membership and enhanced security while the others were being left aside as apparently not deserving that assurance.
Some in the West, especially a few prominent geopoliticians of the Cold War school, including Henry Kissinger, have meanwhile gone beyond Clinton administration spokesmen in advocating on general “realist” geopolitical grounds rapid and substantial expansion of NATO not to cultivate democracy in Eastern Europe or to hedge against a possible failure of democracy in Russia, but to take advantage of temporary Russian weakness and establish a counter-Russian military alliance now while we are most easily able to do so.
Such arguments, of course, complete the circle: that is exactly what many in Russia fear, that the move is simply an anti-Russian action by NATO and above all the United States. Many in Russia harbor anti-Western and especially anti-NATO biases from long-ingrained Cold War thinking in any case, but such suspicions were being validated by the actions of the West. This line of advocacy by prominent American cold warriors also undercut Western counter-arguments that NATO expansion was in Russian interests and that the Russians had nothing to fear from an enlarged NATO so long as Russia itself had no expansionist designs.
NATO enlargement, as the path to security for Eastern Europe and therefore for Europe as a whole, is not directed against Russia. Yet, to many Russians, the renewal of the Western Cold War political-military alliance by absorbing former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact when there is no threat from Russia can only be seen as creating a new threat to Russia. Moreover, many believe, and others have fanned opposition by claiming, that NATO moving East would represent a direct military threat to Russia. Why else would NATO, now with enormous conventional as well as nuclear superiority, feel it necessary to advance to the very borders of Russia itself?
More important than the fact that NATO expansion stirs unrealistic Russian fears is that it would in fact impinge on legitimate Russian security interests. Expansion of NATO, excluding Russia, to provide security for Western and Eastern Europe would marginalize, if not exclude, Russia from meaningful participation in European security arrangements. If Russia is not offered membership in what is being heralded as the central security body of Europe, it is not being given full and equal status as a European power in the new world order. As important as it is to avoid feeding Russian misperceptions of a Western military threat, it is even more important to avoid feeding valid Russian perceptions that their legitimate security interests are not being given appropriate weight. Because this is not the Western purpose, there is all the more reason to seek some other means to meet Western (and Central European) security aims without persisting on a course that can only create a long-term problem with Russia—and, in one or another way, for other Soviet-successor states.
NATO enlargement as a hedge against negative policy changes in Russia risks contributing precisely to such changes. Hedging should at the least not risk making political dangers more real; it can and should therefore be a contingent response in the event that such changes occur, rather than a preemptive initiative that may help bring them about.
The danger is not that Russia will angrily react to NATO expansion by precipitous military counter-actions against the Baltic states, pressure on Ukraine, or foreign adventures elsewhere. There might well be some decreased security for all as Russia would have to rely more on a strategy of flexible response with planned early recourse to nuclear weapons as its only counter to a potential Western military threat. But the main adverse consequence would be political: diminished Russian confidence in the West and a considerable weakening of the influence of those Russians who are most devoted to policies of cooperation with the West and international cooperative security. The first casualty would probably be the unratified START II Treaty and prospects for further strategic arms control, and perhaps also the existing regime of conventional arms control in Europe. At worst, Russia would become not a rampaging bear but an isolated and besieged nuclear fortress, with little incentive to contribute to security of a perceived hostile world, for example by responsible policies of restraint in arms sales and nuclear nonproliferation. To have driven Russia from support of Desert Storm to support for the Saddam Husseins of the future by denying it a responsible role in the security architecture of the new world order would be a heavy burden to assume for expanding NATO.
In 1949, Lord Ismay remarked that the contribution of NATO to security in Europe lay in “keeping America in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” A lot has changed in the intervening half century. Today NATO can continue to serve a useful role in European security only if it does not keep the Russians out. This is by no means a matter of “giving Russia a veto” or pandering to unreasonable Russian fears or objections. We should have learned that no one gains security by creating insecurity for others. If legitimate Russian security interests are not met, neither will the long-run interests of Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the United States, and the world.
I have touched on only one of many reasons that expanding NATO membership is a bad idea. NATO remains a military alliance, and working toward its expansion focuses too much attention on military aspects of security. Prospective new members of NATO and future candidates for membership, for example, are being told to modernize and improve their military infrastructure and armed forces to be compatible with those of NATO—a costly diversion from political and economic reform. Meanwhile, some present members of NATO, whose votes are needed for unanimous agreement to bring in new members, are using the leverage of their votes to press for extraneous ambitions (Turkish pressure for membership in the EU is but one such instance that has become public). Nor has much attention been paid to the fact that each new member of NATO could wield a veto on future candidacies of others.
Too Late to Change Course?
Once the undesirability of the attempt to enlarge NATO becomes clear, we are left with a serious problem: are the costs of abandoning NATO expansion already too great to change course? Would the political costs of belatedly aborting the planned July announcement of inviting three countries to join NATO outweigh the costs of proceeding? Perhaps the process could be slowed or curtailed, for example limited to bringing in only three or four new members. Alternatively, it could be made clear that future membership would be open to all qualified aspirants, not excluding in due time Russia. That course would not appeal to many (in Russia as well as in the West), and if it eventually came to pass might leave NATO little different from other unwieldy large organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. We could lose much of NATO’s present value as a functioning security organization. Indeed, many strong American supporters of NATO oppose any enlargement out of concern over the diluting effect of bringing in even a few new members. But proceeding on the present track may be even more destabilizing.
The present course now includes an attempt to negotiate a NATO-Russian “charter” or other agreement, offering a yet undefined security relationship short of Russian membership in NATO. The Russians are asking for a formal ratified treaty and object that unilateral NATO assurances of no present plans to deploy forces or nuclear weapons in the territories of new members in the East may change. Even if there are no grounds for present alarm over the intentions of either NATO or Russia, just as some in the West fear a changed future Russia, so some in Russia fear a change in Western intentions. Although the prospects of undesirable change in Russia seem greater, on the traditional basis of gauging potential threat by “capabilities, not intentions,” the Russian concerns are justifiable. To be sure, if NATO enlargement does proceed, it is essential that as strong a NATO-Russian tie as possible be provided, not only because the Russians want it but because we should too in our own interests. Agreement on reduced national levels of conventional forces in Central-Eastern Europe would also help.
Perhaps the answer is really to transform NATO, beginning by extending to any new members of the alliance the security assurances of Article V and membership in the North Atlantic Council, but without expanding the NATO military organization. The military organization could remain with current members within its inherited 1990 borders, with broader military cooperation based on variegated cooperative arrangements under the Partnership for Peace, while the political organization finds a new role. If this is not the answer, at least it helps identify the problem. Above all, we should keep in mind that the objective is broader and deeper security, not expanding an organization for some at the cost of diminishing security for all.
by Mike Mochizuki
The post-World War II security relationship between Japan and the United States was based on a bargain inspired by the Soviet threat: the United States agreed to defend Japan in exchange for access to military bases in Japan. Since the Cold War’s end, Washington and Tokyo have been inching toward updating that paternalistic relationship not only to make it more reciprocal but also to expand its focus to include regional peace and stability.
Domestic pressures in both Japan and the United States argue for redefining the alliance. As is evident from the public reaction in Okinawa after the rape of the schoolgirl by American servicemen in September 1995, many Okinawans resent their burden in maintaining the bilateral security arrangements. And most of their countrymen strongly oppose transferring U.S. forces elsewhere in Japan. The burgeoning Japanese budget deficit also suggests that there are limits to Tokyo s host-nation support for U.S. forces in Japan. The American public, for its part, may not be content for Japan to continue free-riding on U.S. security policy.
The challenge for the Clinton administration is how to strike a new strategic bargain that would allow Japan to shed its postwar pacifist role and assume more of the diplomatic and military risks for maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific region. In turn, the United States would streamline its military presence in Japan and move toward a more equal partnership.
Step by Step
In April of 1996 President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto held a summit meeting in Tokyo that appeared to herald change. Clinton defused the Okinawa crisis by agreeing to return the Futenma Marine Air Station to Okinawa in five to seven years and reduce the acreage of American military facilities in Okinawa. Japan agreed to provide logistical support for U.S. forces during peacetime for training, joint exercises, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian missions. And the two nations agreed to review the 1978 Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation to enhance coordination and cooperation to deal “with situations that may emerge in the areas surrounding Japan and which will have an important influence on the peace and security of Japan.” But progress has been slow.
In redefining the alliance, defense officials on both sides have adopted an incremental approach. At present, what will not change is clearer than what will. The Japanese constitution—in which the Japanese people “forever renounce war” and declare that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”—is not to be amended or reinterpreted. Japan will not abandon its “exclusive defense” concept, whereby it is prevented from exercising its right of collective self-defense in regional matters that do not involve aggression against Japan. The longstanding U.S.-Japan security pact is not to be revised. The current U.S. force structure in Japan is not to be altered. Alliance redefinition, whatever that is to mean, is to be primarily a bureaucratic process with public discussion kept to a minimum.
In Japan, domestic political constraints have prompted this approach. Political realignment in 1993 and the end of the Liberal Democratic Party s postwar hold on government finally induced the Japan Socialist Party (now the Social Democratic Party of Japan) to change its traditional platform of unarmed neutrality and accept both the U.S.-Japan security treaty and the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces. For the first time since the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan, Japanese defense officials now have an opportunity to formulate policy on the basis of a broad multipartisan consensus. But ensuring the acquiescence of the Social Democrats necessitates a go-slow approach. Policymakers fear that revising or even reinterpreting the constitution and the U.S.-Japan security treaty would cause a rancorous public debate that could jeopardize the steady progress that has been made over the past two decades in broadening Japanese domestic support for the alliance.
In the United States, a delicate balancing act led policymakers to embrace incrementalism. On the one hand, the logic of deterrence and crisis response calls for the normalization of Japan as a great power with the will and capability to act outside the Japanese defense perimeter in concert with the United States. On the other, the logic of restraining Japanese autonomy and of reassuring Japan s wary Asian neighbors suggests the imprudence of pushing Japan too far and too quickly.
The strategy of incrementalism, however, is seriously flawed. First, it obscures the ultimate objective of alliance redefinition. While American and Japanese defense officials have stated that Japan should do more to cooperate with U.S. military forces, exactly how much and in what way remains quite unclear. Second, it avoids acknowledging the need for a frank and open discussion of security issues in Japan. Japanese officials have traditionally downplayed the strategic significance of changes in security policy to defuse ideological conflict. As a result, most Japanese politicians, as well as the general public, have only a cursory expertise about the details of security policy. This policy is not healthy for Japan or for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Finally, incrementalism narrows the strategic agenda overmuch. Maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific requires more than military means. Washington and Tokyo must broaden the discussion to the coordination of diplomacy and economic policy to nurture a more benign regional environment.
A New Consensus at Home
Transforming the U.S.-Japan security relationship into a true alliance will require first of all forging a new domestic consensus in both Japan and the United States.
Recent trends in Japan present an opportunity to mobilize political support for a more activist security policy. With the October 1996 election, the Social Democratic Party has shrunk to a minor political force, and the new Democratic Party led by young politicians born in the postwar era has emerged as a pivotal group. Unlike the pacifist Social Democrats, the Democrats are more willing to inject a healthy dose of realism into their dovish outlook. For example, in exchange for a reduction of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa, the Democratic Party supports Japan taking on new defense functions within the framework of the constitution. With the demise of the old Social Democrats as an obstructionist force in defense policymaking, there is now an opportunity to develop a new security consensus.
For the United States, the critical challenge will be developing a strategic vision and a clearer sense of priorities. Its favorable geopolitical position coupled with pressing domestic problems will inevitably tug the United States toward a more modest foreign policy. Yet America’s stake in the global economy and its sense of historical mission will restrain the isolationist impulse. What will be increasingly debated is not the question of international involvement as such, but the terms of that involvement. Despite America’s temptation to resort to unilateral action, the active support of allies will become more and more critical to sustain domestic support for foreign engagements. In East Asia, American foreign policy encompasses multiple objectives: preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon or hostile coalition, deterring attacks on allies and defending them if deterrence fails, checking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, improving access to the region’s growing markets, and promoting democracy and human rights. Weaving these different goals into a coherent and integrated strategy is hard enough in the abstract. The task becomes virtually impossible without presidential leadership in defining priorities and mobilizing domestic political consensus, especially in Congress. Absent such leadership, policy will be ad hoc, inconsistent, and essentially reactive.
Restructuring the Alliance
The time has come to strike a new strategic bargain between Japan and the United States. Under current arrangements, the alliance may not weather the test of a severe security crisis. The Persian Gulf crisis and war of 1990-91 provoked international criticism of Japan s limited role, wounded Japanese pride, and proved the inadequacy of checkbook diplomacy. Hesitation from Japan in another crisis could severely strain the alliance. When shared vital interests are at stake, Japanese financial contributions will be inadequate to convince Americans about the alliance s importance. Preventing a rupture of the alliance during a crisis, therefore, requires altering the terms of the security relationship before such a crisis occurs.
While the Pentagon has temporarily defused tensions on Okinawa, there is now widespread support in Japan for a gradual but significant reduction of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa and elsewhere. Rather than inflexibly sticking to the need for 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, the United States should adopt a roles-and-mission approach and determine what forward deployments are absolutely critical for deterrence and crisis response in light of changes in the strategic environment and technological capabilities. America s most important military assets in Japan are its air and naval power. Washington should make the adjustments necessary to sustain Japan’s willingness to host these assets. In return, Japan should take steps to support U.S. military operations in regional contingencies and to facilitate rapid deployments into and out of Japan during an emergency. If such a bargain can be struck, the Marine combat forces in Okinawa could be removed without impairing U.S. military missions as long as Marine combat equipment is prepositioned on the island for ready use in a crisis. Such a move would go far in consolidating Japanese political support for the alliance well into the next century.
As the U.S.-Japan alliance becomes more reciprocal, the United States must genuinely consult Japan, not merely inform it of decisions already made. Although the two countries agreed to a prior consultations process when the 1960 bilateral security pact was signed, this mechanism has never been used. Because support for U.S. military operations beyond Japan would provoke such intense domestic controversy, Tokyo appeared to prefer not to be consulted. The Japanese government has applied such strict criteria for when Washington would have to consult with Tokyo that Washington has never had to get Japan’s formal permission to use bases in Japan for military operations in Southeast Asia or the Middle East. The result has been, paradoxically, that pacifist Japan has given the United States freer rein on the use of overseas bases than America’s European allies. Japan’s abdication of its right to be consulted has fueled public distrust in Japan about bilateral defense cooperation. A healthier alliance demands prior consultation. As Japan musters the courage and will to say “yes” to collective defense and security missions, it should also gain the right to say “no” when it disagrees with U.S. policy. The U.S.-Japan alliance would then evolve toward something akin to America s strategic relationships with the major West European allies.
The centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance for the regional security environment makes it much more than a bilateral issue. While greater Japanese military support for U.S. forces may strengthen deterrence and the ability to respond to regional crises, it may aggravate Asian concerns about Japan’s remilitarization, possibly even fueling a new regional arms race. Some Asian states might also interpret this move as the precursor to American military disengagement. Any attempt to restructure the alliance must therefore be sensitive to its possible impact on the rest of the region. Japanese leaders must deal more forthrightly with the historical issues concerning Japan’s militarist past to reassure Asians about Japan playing a more prominent regional security role. And U.S. leaders must convince the region that changes in U.S. force structure in Japan do not weaken America’s capacity to deter aggression and respond effectively when aggression occurs, but rather make U.S. forward deployments in Japan politically more sustainable.
Finally, as critical as deterrence and crisis management are, they are by no means sufficient to promote regional security. The United States and Japan must move beyond a strategy of military presence to develop an effective regional strategy to reduce tensions and prevent crisis. Keeping 100,000 troops in the East Asia-Pacific region is a poor surrogate for a comprehensive Asia policy. More realism is necessary in claims about what this military presence accomplishes. The “regional cooperation” section of the April 1996 U.S.-Japan Joint Declaration on Security did nothing more than list in general terms common regional security goals regarding Korea, China, Russia, and Southeast Asia. What is desperately needed now is a concrete, coordinated policy to achieve these objectives. (go to critique)
by Harry Harding (Dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at the George Washington University)
Last January, a high-level Chinese official visiting the United States aptly summarized Sino-American relations at the beginning of the second Clinton term. “The atmosphere is better,” he told his American hosts, “but the problems are many.” The atmosphere of U.S. relations with China is better because, for the first time in four years, the Clinton administration has finally put a sensible China policy in place. Practice, it seems, is paying off. The new approach is no less than the third distinct policy toward China adopted by the U.S. government since President Clinton took office in January 1993.
Off to a Shaky Start
The first policy, born of a campaign promise to stop “coddling dictators” in Beijing, involved a single-minded focus on promoting human rights in China. It was based on the assumption that only intense pressure, principally through the threat to revoke China’s most-favored-nation trade status, could force Beijing to improve its human rights record. High-level contact with China was to be withheld until progress had been achieved.
By the end of 1993, however, it had become increasingly evident that China was not succumbing to the American pressure on human rights and that other aspects of the relationship warranted attention. At that point the administration unveiled its second China policy—one that it called “comprehensive engagement.” It entailed more frequent exchange of cabinet-level visits to discuss a broader bilateral agenda. The aim was to show that, on these other issues, the United States and China might find areas of cooperation and thus bring the overall relationship into better balance.
The problem was that the overall purpose of “engagement” was never effectively conveyed to Beijing. Even after the Clinton administration withdrew its threat to revoke Beijing’s most-favored-nation status in the name of continued economic engagement with China, many Chinese concluded that “engagement” was simply a euphemism for containment and that American policy was really intended to keep China weak and divided so that it would never seriously challenge American preeminence in Asia.
The 1995 controversy over Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States, and the subsequent Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, showed how deeply China had come to mistrust American intentions. From Beijing’s perspective, the visa granted to Lee Teng-hui showed that Washington now planned to promote the independence of Taiwan as part of its overall strategy of containing the rise of Chinese power.
On the Right Track
The tensions in the Taiwan Strait persuaded the Clinton administration to adopt a fresh approach to China to reduce the chances of confrontation. The new policy, unveiled in the middle of last year, was an advance over “comprehensive engagement” in two ways. First, Washington explained that the purpose was not containment, as the Chinese feared, but rather the integration of China into the international community so that the rise of Chinese power could be absorbed in constructive ways. Second, the United States agreed to raise the official Sino-American dialogue to the highest level, offering the first bilateral summit meetings since George Bush’s visit to China in early 1989.
The Clinton administration’s third China policy has been reasonably well received in Beijing. The Chinese government seems to have accepted the assurances that the United States does not seek to contain China and that it hopes to achieve a cooperative relationship. Chinese officials particularly welcome Washington’s willingness to resume regular summit meetings between Chinese and American leaders. Thus, Chinese spokesmen have repeatedly said that the atmosphere for Sino-American relations has been significantly improved as a result of the new American initiative.
But the U.S.-China relationship is still bedeviled by a long list of vexing issues, from trade to human rights, and from proliferation to Taiwan. Moreover, several of these problems could well be exacerbated during the early months of the second Clinton term.
Americans will pay close attention to the status of political rights and the integrity of the legal system in Hong Kong after it reverts to Chinese sovereignty on July 1. Beijing’s decisions to dismantle the Legislative Council elected in 1995, to revise some of the laws recently enacted to protect political rights, and to adopt new legislation against sedition have already caused great concern in the United States. Any restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, or organization after July 1 could touch off a crisis in Sino-American relations, especially if the strictures involved the visible suppression of political protest.
In addition, China’s trade surplus with the United States, at least as measured by official American statistics, will probably exceed Japan’s trade surplus with the United States this year. This will intensify American charges that China is, in the economic sphere, becoming a “second Japan”—engaging in a neo-mercantilist trade policy that promotes exports to foreign countries while restricting access to the Chinese market.
And other sensitive issues could very likely flare up again in the months ahead. Actions by Taipei that are interpreted in China as moves toward independence could again provoke Beijing to bring military pressure to bear against Taiwan. Evidence of Chinese exports of missile technology could trigger pressure to apply the economic sanctions required by U.S. law. Sales of other kinds of military technology to what the United States regards as “rogue states” could also produce serious tensions in Sino-American relations. And, finally, dramatic violations of human rights in China—especially the suppression of peaceful protests in a major Chinese city, a crackdown on ethnic separatists in Tibet or Xinjiang, or the harsh sentencing of political dissidents—could derail the plans for Sino-American summit meetings.
Moreover, the two countries’ ability to deal with these issues constructively will be limited by domestic political considerations. Now that Deng Xiaoping is dead, Jiang Zemin will be preoccupied with consolidating his own power and may be reluctant to take controversial initiatives toward the United States. And although Clinton won a decisive reelection victory last November, he must anticipate continued Republican criticism of his China policy, especially given the emerging scandals involving Asian financial contributions to his election campaign.
Accentuate the Positive
Lasting improvement in Sino-American relations will require that the two countries manage these problems before new issues arise. How might this be done?
Agreement on the terms for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization would be the single biggest step the two countries could take to consolidate their new relationship. For Beijing, admission to the WTO would burnish China’s standing as a major international power and would significantly enhance its prospects for receiving permanent unconditional most-favored-nation status from the United States. For Washington, Chinese membership in the WTO would win Beijiing’s commitment to reforms that would ultimately provide greater international access to the Chinese market. China’s membership in the WTO would also make possible Taiwan’s accession to the same organization as a separate customs territory—a major breakthrough in Taiwan’s quest for enhanced international status.
China and the United States should also agree to collaborate on issues where their national interests coincide. Cooperative measures to promote peace on the Korean peninsula, security in the Middle East, environmental protection, and legal reforms in China are example of such an approach.
Finally, both sides should exercise restraint on potentially explosive issues: China on the South China Seas, Hong Kong, and proliferation, the United States on Taiwan. The aim would be to avoid any steps that could disrupt the reconstruction of Sino-American relations.
The challenge for the second Clinton administration will be to use the more positive atmosphere to address the problems successfully. If it cannot, the problems could poison the otherwise promising atmosphere.
The West has, in recent years, been mired in political turmoil and economic stagnation. Citizens have expressed declining trust in domestic institutions and mainstream political parties. Concurrently, Putin and Xi have consolidated power at home and are expanding their military and economic influence beyond their borders.