Skip to main content
Op-Ed

China Policy Full of Contradictions

Marxists have always been fond of strategies designed to ‘heighten the contradictions.’ By its stubborn
refusal to send 24 of our nation’s servicemen and women home quickly, China’s ruling class did an
excellent job of heightening, or at least exposing, the contradictions within America’s China policy.

The Bush administration seems to want to do two things at once: be seen as tougher toward the
Chinese government than Bill Clinton was and maintain commitment to free trade.

In theory, it’s possible to be tough on China where security matters are concerned and still favor open
trade. In practice, this approach sends a constant stream of contradictory signals. President Bush is in
a bind because, in the early days of the crisis, he wanted to seem tough. Now he is desperate to get out
of what threatens to become a hostage situation that would endanger free trade.

The president underscored the problems he faces when he told the American Society of Newspaper
Editors last week: ‘China is a strategic partner, I mean, a strategic competitor.’ It may have looked like
a gaffe. In fact, it was a moment full of insight.

Republicans trashed Clinton’s China policies while providing him with critical votes on trade. Cleverly,
Bush tried to distance himself from Clinton’s idea that China was our ‘strategic partner’ by rebaptizing
Beijing as our ‘strategic competitor.’ But those tough new words were married to the very same trade
policies. In one sentence last week, Bush acknowledged—for just a moment—that his approach may
be more Clinton-like than he and many in his party want to admit.

The Chinese government seems intent on making life difficult for its American defenders. Free trade
advocates keep saying that the more China opens itself to world trade, the more free and democratic it
will become. Maybe that will turn out to be true in the very long run. Certainly China is, in important
respects, more free and open today than it was 25 years ago.

But China’s government keeps doing things—to religious and political dissidents especially—that make
its defenders look like fools, or worse, like people whose desire to make money renders them
indifferent to the very freedoms they claim their money-making will expand. Now that China’s leaders
have held members of our own military for the purpose of making political and diplomatic points, it’s
harder than ever for Americans to ignore what those same leaders do to their own dissidents.

Author

The administration is desperately trying to persuade the Chinese government that it’s digging itself a
huge hole. Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to China’s desire to join the World Trade
Organization on Fox News Sunday. ‘We are still supporting access to WTO,’ he said, ‘but I can say
that if we have to go for a vote on normal trading relations again, this situation has not improved their
chances of winning that again.’

At the same time, Powell wanted to say words that would satisfy China. ‘We have expressed our
regrets, we’ve expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that a life was lost,’ he said about the Chinese
airman who died in the collision. The message to the Chinese government: Please, guys, we’re doing all
we can. If you don’t act soon, you and your American friends will be in the soup.

I hope by the time you read this, the strategy will have worked and our people will be on their way
home. Bush surely cannot be blamed for the decision of the Chinese government—or parts of it—to
play things tough.

But this incident should force the president to rethink whether he can have it both ways. China’s rulers,
at least, don’t seem to think that trade and security issues are as separable as we do.

If Bush didn’t want this confrontation, he could have sent the Chinese a message on Day One that this
was an accident and we needed to work it out fast. Alternatively, if he wanted to press China’s leaders,
he didn’t have to be so quick to declare his belief that ‘the economy is a place where we can
partner.’ Ultimately, it’s China’s leadership that has to decide. China can become rich, or it can
be confrontational. It can accept that innovation requires real freedom, or try to limit freedom to a
narrow economic sphere. These are the contradictions that China’s bosses must resolve.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings