Emory Report

February 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 21

First Person:

U.S.-China relations pose critical public policy challenge

China is poised to become a political and economic powerhouse early in the 21st century. With the world's largest population and armed forces, China has ethnic and cultural links throughout East and Southeast Asia. Measured by purchasing power, China's economy, among the top three in the world, could become No. 1 within a few decades. A high savings and investment rate, an almost unlimited supply of low-cost labor and a growing use of sophisticated technology undergird its impressive growth potential. Asian leaders expect China's growing military and economic influence to be felt increasingly throughout the region.

What role will China play in the international community a generation from now? Will a strong China be a force for peace and prosperity, or will it threaten the security of other countries?

China's policies and actions will directly affect the global position of the United States and the lives of the American people. Yet the United States lacks a coherent, long-term policy for dealing with China. Single-issue interest groups compete for Washington's attention and currently drive the country's bilateral policies toward Beijing. That must change if the United States is to use the opportunity of the next years to try to influence the direction of China's thrust toward great power status. No foreign policy goal is more important.

Divergent histories and differing philosophical commitments pose difficulties to a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship that would serve the interests of both countries and that of the international community. After Communists seized power in China in 1949, it took the two countries 30 years to restore normal diplomatic relations. The Nixon visit in 1972 and the diplomatic recognition by the Carter administration in 1979 represented historic shifts motivated principally by Cold War politics.

For a decade thereafter, the depth and breadth of the bilateral relationship improved, but that trend was reversed in the aftermath of China's brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators in Beijing in 1989. The end of the Cold War, which devalued the perceived worth of the "China card," strengthened those in the United States who called for constraining China as a potential future enemy or isolating it until it radically altered its policies on human rights and arms sales and moved toward democratic reforms.

China's leaders frame their national policies with a historical perspective. They and the Chinese people generally resent the period from 1839-1949 when China was subject to Western and Japanese imperialism. They fear a return to the political instability that characterized the decades before 1949 and especially the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). They seek a China that more closely approximates that of previous centuries, when national unity and power were coupled with strong feelings of political, intellectual and ethnic pride.

Many in Beijing interpret U.S. security relations with Japan as directed against China. They view this country's demands for human rights protections as attempts to undermine domestic political stability, bring down the Communist party and infringe on Chinese sovereignty.

As evidence they cite the lack of U.S. interest when thousands of Chinese were dying in the "Cultural Revolution," and the lack of U.S. appreciation for human rights improvements since then or for democratic innovations that have taken place at the local level in recent years. The Chinese leadership makes no secret of its willingness to use access to the vast China market to achieve political goals.

Despite the differences and difficulties, the United States and China share common interests in:

  • a stable international order and a secure and peaceful East Asia;
  • peace on the Korean peninsula and a peaceful Korean unification process;
  • an expansion of international trade, the progressive opening of international markets and increased bilateral economic cooperation;
  • control and reversal of environmental degradation;
  • strengthened international organizations and involvement of both countries in the processes by which this strengthening takes place;
  • a peaceful resolution with Taiwan and a peaceful accommodation between Tibetan culture and Chinese sovereignty;
  • a prosperous and stable China that works for regional security and stability; and
  • mutual respect for each other's nation and civilization.

The challenge is for the two countries to find ways to collaborate to advance their common interests and the means to manage and eventually resolve serious areas of disagreement. If successful, the result could be a Far East whose future is characterized by thriving commerce, expanding human rights, regional cooperation and a peaceful resolution of disputes. Failure would likely lead to rising political frictions, massive military build-ups, restrictive business practices and increased human rights abuses.

The United States requires a long-term strategy consistent with the stakes involved. It must be a strategy that can garner and sustain the support of the American people. To encourage the development of such a policy, the American Assembly, created by President Eisenhower in 1950 to "illuminate public policy issues," has organized a national meeting and is co-sponsoring regional meetings to debate critical issues and prepare recommendations for U.S. policy-makers. Senior officials from business, education, government, media and nongovernmental organizations are participating.

Emory, along with Agnes Scott, The Carter Center, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw University, is co-sponsoring the Southeastern session that will take place in Atlanta Feb. 19-22.

Former Senator Sam Nunn and former Ambassador to China James Lilley will serve as honorary co-chairmen for the event. Two renowned China experts-Agnes Scott President Mary Bullock and Michel Oksenberg, senior fellow of Stanford University's Asian Pacific Research Center-will co-chair the conference, and a selected group of Emory's faculty and students will be invited to participate. The conference recommendations will be published and sent to Washington policy-makers. The addresses of the luncheon and dinner speakers will be videotaped for subsequent use on campus.

Marion Creekmore is vice provost for international affairs.

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