What Works

As promised (see my last post) the following are some thoughts stimulated by points raised by John Pomfret recently in his blog.

The parts of John’s post http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/pomfretschina/2009/03/more_on_hillary_and_us_china_p.html that caught my eye were the words I put in bold below:

“I criticized Clinton’s statement on human rights not because I disagreed with it, but because I felt she was unnecessarily giving China a freebie. In her attempt (perhaps) to break with her past in China (I’m thinking here of the problems she had during the Beijing’s Women’s Forum in 1995), in her attempt to (perhaps) be likeable (There’s no shortage of American diplomats who’ve bought into the whole very weird Chinese concept of friendship), she — without prompting and without a clear tit-for-tat — gave away too much. That, to me, is not sage diplomacy. The Chinese negotiate with us very seriously. Each inch they give us, they do so after a fight. We should be equally as tough; not nasty, not unfriendly, but tough.”

Based on this paragraph, I’d say the main difference between John and I would be a difference over the best way to advance American interests in our relations with China. The paragraph above summarizes one widely held point of view: “toughness” is key to getting things done; the Chinese negotiate in a “tit-for-tat” manner and we should not “give them anything” unless we get something in return; many China experts are not effective in dealing with China because they are too concerned about being seen as friends of China.

Of course, my perspective is different. In defense of my approach, I’d cite the following list of names: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

What do they have in common with regard to China? They all campaigned on getting “tough” with China but moderated their approaches substantially after being in office for a while (and each was then criticized in the next campaign by their opponent for being too “friendly” to China). (George H.W. Bush does not make the list only because he did not campaign on getting tough with China. His pragmatic approach toward China was consistent in his campaign and in office. But I think his experience in China in the 1970s coupled with his behavior in office supports the thesis I propose below.)

Why this consistent shift in rhetoric and behavior over 35 years from a group of strong willed leaders from two parties and different places on the political spectrum? There is a simple explanation: once you have the responsibility for moving issues forward with China the situation looks very different than it did when you were on the outside and free to offer your views with no responsibility for actually getting anything done.

I’m not saying one never should be tough. Sending US aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait at the time of China’s missile firings in March 1996 was the right thing to do. And I think I could produce a goodly number of witnesses from both governments who could testify that I have pushed back pretty hard in my trade negotiations in Beijing. But such actions are most effective when taken in the context of a set of relationships that are based on mutual respect and, yes, a form of professional friendship.

But to illustrate this point concretely, let’s think about President Clinton’s campaign and first year in office:

Tough? Remember his campaign criticism of Bush 41 for “coddling the butchers of Beijing”?

Tit-for-tat? Remember the new President’s decision to link approval of Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to very specific steps forward by China in human rights?

Remember how the story ends? The Clinton Administration does not achieve its human rights goals through its tough talk and tit-for-tat approach and is embarrassed by having to withdraw the linkage to MFN. Later, President Clinton is attacked for being too friendly to China.

This kind of experience highlights the fallacy of the view that China hands “go easy” on China because they are worried about offending. The fact is, people who have spent time carrying the responsibility for achieving progress on issues with China come to realize what works and what doesn’t.

Let me be clear: I think it is fine for academics, journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary American citizens to air their criticism of China (or any other country) in whatever terms they want. Sometimes such public criticism can be helpful.

However, we should not confuse such statements with the professional and pragmatic approach required to actually advance American interests in this complex relationship. I certainly can’t speak for any of them, but I believe the observed behavior of Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush supports this view.

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