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Outside View: Coping with China

US President George W. Bush(2nd-L) and US First Lady Laura Bush(R) attend a social dinner inside the Great Hall of the People as guests of Chinese President Hu (C) on their visit to Beijing, China, 20 November 2005. AFP photo by Paul J. Richards.

Washington (UPI) Dec 10, 2005
President George W Bush's third trip to China has brought the inevitable cacophony of TV and print punditry, with all the old chestnut calls for the United States to "manage" relations with China, to "engage" with China, or even to "contain" China.

All three of these formulations do more to obfuscate our thinking about China than to clarify it. "Manage" was a term often used by politically liberal observers of the Soviet Union who were squeamish about confronting it directly.

They seemed to imagine that you could "manage" a boxing match between yourself and a bear. But you couldn't do that then, and you can't "manage" a wrestling match with the Chinese dragon now, because what you don't control -- and we don't control the China side of the U.S.-China relationship -- you can't manage.

"Engagement" is certainly a good way to describe the need to be active doing business -- and diplomacy, for that matter -- with China.

But it is a prescription of method rather than of ultimate goals. For what ultimate end should we "engage" China? As for "containment," though this term conjures up comforting echoes of the successful Cold War policy of confronting an expansionist Soviet Union, containment of China isn't a remotely practical U.S. policy objective. Even on the issue of Taiwan, it is doubtful that we can "contain" China, and we face diminishing possibilities of preventing China from becoming a major regional power.

What the United States should seek in its relations with China is, if possible, China's "soft landing" as a global superpower. We need to ensure China's emergence threatens no vital U.S. interest and above

all is not a threat to world peace. Above all, we don't want a repeat

of the years before World War I, when Wilhelmine Germany, resentful of Britain for not "respecting" it and of France for supposedly plotting a replay of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war (which Berlin won), planned a naval race with Britain and a complex military invasion of Belgium and France -- the Schlieffen plan -- which it subsequently implemented.

How do we avoid the emergence of China in a manner analogous to Germany's rise prior to World War I? One way is for both the Chinese and the U.S. sides to lay out what each wants or doesn't want in a setting conducive to long-range resolution of mutual problems rather than subject to hasty, politically driven pressures. In effect, we need a process of U.S.-China discussions specifically intended -- for reasons of rational self-interest -- to arrive at non-confrontational solutions of common issues.

The United States might propose to the Chinese, for example, an ongoing program of U.S.-China talks that outlast on the American side the vagaries of policy change from administration to administration and on the Chinese side periodic political succession squabbles at the upper levels of the Communist Party.

It would set in motion a detailed, and continuous U.S.-China conversation, involving bilateral commissions to deal with four main areas of potential contention in the U.S.-China relationship: Security relationships, diplomatic relationships, economic relationships and human rights issues.

On the U.S. side, the commissions would be comprised of a mix of government and non-governmental experts in each area covered by the commission, with the chairperson nominated by the president but confirmed by the Senate. It is vital the U.S. legislature should be convinced it has a voice in the long-range formulation of China policy through the senate confirmation process. (Commissioners, of course, could be invited to speak to committees of the House as well.)

The economic commission might include labor union officials as well as CEO's and Chamber of Commerce representatives. The security commission would include academic experts on the U.S. and Chinese militaries as well as Defense Department officials.

The human rights commission would include critics of Chinese human rights practices but also experts on American human rights issues that have been the subject of criticism abroad, including in China. The Chinese should be encouraged to view the American commissions as consisting of people truly willing, and truly qualified, to listen to them. After all, while most Americans would certainly agree that the United States often has legitimate grievances against China, it is just possible that China may occasionally have grievances against the United States.

The whole point of the national and the bilateral meetings of the Chinese and American commissions would be to invest in a process of defusing potential American-Chinese points of tension before they surface as bilateral political crises.

The actual conduct of China policy would continue to be carried out in the normal way through the White House, State Department and Defense Department. But the advantage of the system of commissions would be that the political echelon in both the United States and China would have a vastly deeper range of knowledge and experience to draw upon in dealing with mutual tensions than is currently available through U.S. government departments alone.

Of course, critics of this system might argue that China, with its absence of public discussion of national policies, might load its own side of the commission process with party hacks obedient to the needs of their political masters.

But even if the Chinese political leadership became irredeemably militaristic, the existence of the bilateral commissions would surely help to deter radical, rash action on the Chinese side. Chinese commission members would relay to their political leaders a far broader American critique of potentially rash government policies than would come from purely government-to-government discussions in the bilateral arena.

Imagine if the French and the Germans had invested in a similar system before World War I and the French had said, "We know about the Schlieffen plan to invade Belgium and France (they did) and we are quite sure the British will intervene if you implement it. Furthermore, we consider it likely that the Americans will eventually enter the war against you."

Major world conflicts usually break out because one side or other has miscalculated the likely response of the other side before hostilities begin. The creation of ongoing bilateral commissions in at least the four areas we have mentioned might significantly reduce the risk of U.S.-China misunderstandings leading to actual conflict.

It might also persuade paranoid Chinese strategists ("the United States is determined to isolate China") that their view of the world was not borne out by the realities of U.S. behavior.

(David Aikman is a former Time Magazine bureau chief in Beijing and currently teaches Chinese history at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of "Jesus in Beijing," and a new novel, "QI.")

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Source: United Press International

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Washington (UPI) Dec 10, 2005
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