U.S.-China Relations May Thaw a Bit

With the recent resolution of two sensitive issues for U.S.-China relations—terms for Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization and settlement of property claims for the loss of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and damage to U.S. diplomatic buildings in China—both sides are keen to reopen long-suspended official dialogue channels.

The property damage settlement was the last persistent obstacle to restarting key bilateral discussions since the relationship imploded last spring over the Belgrade bombing, trashing of U.S. property in China, spy allegations, botched trade negotiations and U.S. support for Taiwan.

The first major sign of the thaw is the planned visit later this month to Washington by Chinese Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, Beijing’s principal interlocutor with foreign militaries and the country’s defense intelligence chief, to restart the bilateral Defense Consultative Talks. Formal dialogue in other areas, such as arms control and human rights issues, may also get off the ground once again over the coming months.

Having waited eight rocky months to ease the relationship back onto a more stable footing, officials on both sides are eager to see early progress. But, before rushing ahead, a serious reality check is needed. The difficult past year in U.S.-China relations should serve as a much-needed reminder that we cannot simply return to business as usual with Beijing.

This is not a rejection of engagement, but of engagement for engagement’s sake.

What is needed is a clearer framework of engagement that acknowledges and realistically addresses the serious differences between the two sides.

Most important, a frank recognition of the big picture should supercede tinkering in bilateral details. All that was wrong before the Belgrade bombing and subsequent deterioration of the relationship has not changed. For Beijing, the destruction of its Belgrade embassy dramatically confirmed what had already been a lengthening list of fundamental Chinese grievances about the direction of the international system, largely related to concerns over American hegemonism, unilateralism and military, technological and cultural predominance.

Overall, the post-Cold War world has not worked out as most Chinese analysts hoped: Rather than a relative balance of several major powers (including China), the world has instead increasingly come under the dominion of a single superpower with the potential of becoming very unfriendly toward China. At best, the Chinese leadership must grudgingly accept and gingerly work within this framework.

Similarly, recent positive developments in the U.S.-China relationship do nothing to assuage American suspicions of China’s regional ambitions and intentions toward the United States.

These suspicions result in a wary public approach to China’s policies on Taiwan, its nuclear weapons modernization program, its human rights record and its trading practices.

Under these conditions, as high-level dialogue restarts with China, the U.S. side needs to keep expectations low and build toward modest goals characterized neither by “strategic partnership” nor “strategic competition,” but on the basis of establishing a far greater degree of “strategic reassurance.” This cannot be done at the working level alone. Rather, real progress on the big issues that matter most to us with China—improved conditions for political and social rights, peaceful resolution of differences across the Taiwan Strait, stable integration of China’s rising economic and military power—demands steady, institutionalized dialogue with appropriate Chinese leaders.

But this important task will not be easy. And, given that this is an election year in the last months of Bill Clinton’s administration, we should not have high hopes that new and significant breakthroughs can be achieved.

The Chinese side certainly does not, as will be evidenced by its reluctance to reach any noteworthy new near-term understandings with the United States in the short term.

In short, fundamental and significant progress in U.S.-China relations will likely have to await a new administration prepared to work with China on the basis of “strategic reassurance.” We should proceed cautiously in the coming months with our eyes wide open and with uncharacteristically low expectations. Or, to take note of some useful Daoist guidance: Wu wei er zhi—”govern by doing nothing against the nature of things.”