Walking on eggshells: US-China relations after Deng

By Scott Tibbs

With the death of Chinese leader Deng Xiopang, The United States faces a potential period of great difficulty in US-China relations. Now, Sino-American relations are again at the forefront of world news, and our foreign policy experts must continue attempting to formulate an effective strategy.

Any foreign policy must take into account the goals of American policy in the Far East:

  • Promoting free trade
  • Preventing arms proliferation, especially the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Protecting the security of our allies in the region, especially Japan and Taiwan
  • Maintaining the balance of power
  • Promoting the value of human life.
  • And, most importantly, avoiding a second counterproductive cold war with China.
However, the Clinton Administrations rudderless and confused foreign policy with regard to China has severely hurt Sino-American relations. One day, Clinton is the worlds champion of human rights, blasting China for its questionable record, and the next he is a prudent businessman, realizing that free trade is the key to improving the lives of Chinese and American alike.

If we wish for China to take us seriously, we must develop a consistent, workable, and realistic foreign policy with regards to the Far East. To do this, we must prioritize our goals. While we are justifiably concerned with human rights in China, we must ask three questions before we embark on a moral crusade on this issue: Can we realistically change Chinas human tights policy? How will our behavior on human rights issues affect our ability to influence China on other issues? What is the most effective way to enhance human rights in China?

First, we cannot realistically expect to change Chinas human rights record. A country with a billion people and the fastest growing economy in the world will be heavily resistant to any economic or diplomatic pressure to change. While we are all sickened by some of the abuses in China, we must consider what we can do in addition to what we want to do.

Second, human rights is not the only aspect of Sino-American relations. It may be necessary to compromise on human rights in order to gain cooperation in other areas, especially in weapons proliferation. While it is unfortunate, the fact is we are much more at risk if China sells nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons to rouge states with a history of supporting terrorism, such as North Korea or Iran. If we make a strong push for human rights in China, we may severely hinder other areas where we need their cooperation. This is especially important considering China views human rights as an internal matter and is strongly opposed to any outside interference.

Furthermore, we should also realize the situation in China is improving. With the worlds fastest growing economy, the living standard of the Chinese people has improved drastically since Deng instituted economic reforms after Mao Zedungs death. While political oppression is rampant, economic prosperity may yet lead to more pressure on Chinas leaders to ease up on oppression. If economic freedom is to lead to political freedom, abandoning our economic relations with China is not a wise move.

Finally, we must be careful in relation to China, especially now. We really have no idea who is in control right now, or how stable that control is. It may be a good idea to back off of China until the political leadership has stabilized. While it is possible Dengs successor, whoever it turns out to be, has already cemented his power base and has been in power for a while, it is also possible we will see a difficult power struggle take place. We simply do not have enough information to know for sure, and a foreign policy crisis is not a stabilizing thing to throw at a totalitarian country in the midst of a leadership change. If the next leader in China is in power for a long time like Mao and Deng, we do not need to start the relationship on a bad tone.

China could very well be the most important aspect of US foreign policy over the next 50 years, and we must look forward, not just to the end of our collective nose.

Do you need glasses, Mr. President?

Mike Trotzke

Sean Frick

Eric Seymour