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New Policy on China: Usefully Incoherent

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TWENTY years after Richard Nixon's trip to Beijing, many people believe that United States policy toward China is in disarray. The bipartisan consensus established in 1972 has broken down. Congressional Democrats push for a hard line to pressure the Chinese communists to change their ways. The president resists and calls for a softer line to nudge Beijing in the right direction. The result, since 1989, has been an intermittent struggle between the White House and Capitol Hill that sends mixed signals to Beijing. This is not necessarily bad. A little incoherence in China policy is what the situation demands.

At the time of President Nixon's visit, China and the US had a common interest in resisting the threat posed by Soviet military might. But by the mid-1980s, with the cold war winding down, the old containment payoff lost its importance. In the absence of a strategic interest in cooperation, conflicts were no longer easily overlooked. Ever since the tragic events of 1989, the two sides have clashed over issues they see in starkly different ways: human rights, economic policy, arms sales, and the future of


Under these circumstances, the question arises of what China policy best serves the US interest in promoting human rights, fair economic relations, and responsible international conduct.

Some argue for a hard line, threatening economic or diplomatic sanctions if the leadership in Beijing does not yield to American demands. This would require the insecure, factionalized Chinese communists to knuckle under publicly to US pressure, something they will not do. Nevertheless, congressional threats may still dissuade the Chinese leadership from acting in ways Americans deem unacceptable. Compliance with dissuasive threats requires no humiliating visible change in behavior. By boldly warning Bei jing leaders of the consequences of their future actions, Congress may be able to dissuade them from using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, resuming large-scale political arrests, recklessly marketing nuclear technology, and crudely forcing the issue of Taiwan's reunification.


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