On Jan. 27, Bill Clinton will deliver the final State of the Union Address of his presidency. It will be his last opportunity to set forth a comprehensive policy agenda and attempt to establish a legacy beyond his impeachment and Alan Greenspan's economy. One of the few policy areas left for Clinton to make a lasting mark is US-China relations.
Under Clinton's leadership, US relations with China have been on a dizzying zig-zag course from treating China's leaders as "dictators" and "butchers" to envisioning them as "constructive strategic partners." Clinton's lack of vision is matched by his lack of judgement when faced with the challenges of China's military modernization, belligerence towards Taiwan and jealous control over its people's private lives.
Clinton has ceded the position of strength in this bilateral relationship to China, the militarily, economically and morally weaker partner, by courting a partnership with Beijing instead of deterring aggression and defending demo-cracy. Clinton's lust for partnership with Beijing unfortunately has come at the expense of traditional allies like Japan, Korea and Taiwan who are already free, prosperous and peaceful.
With a WTO deal with China in hand, the President now needs Congress to back it up by extending normal trade relations status to China on a permanent basis. Thus Clinton will certainly have to address the several congressional concerns that stand in his way. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions for what he should and should not do in his address.
One of the first things he should do is praise Taiwan's democracy. Taiwan will hold its second direct presidential election on March 18. Clinton should recognize the importance of this development of democracy in a Chinese society and praise Taiwan for its progress. Failure to do so will undermine efforts to promote democracy throughout greater China.
He should put China in its place. China has an impressive history and great potential. But it is not yet clear whether its economic and military potential will benefit or harm US interests in Asia and beyond. China is still a rising power, not a great power and should be treated as such. Traditional allies remain mili-tarily, economically and politically more important to the US than is China.
Clinton should make protecting American security the top priority in relations with China. Congressional oversight investigations have produced compelling evidence of the cost to American security of the Clinton administration's.trade over all mentality. Clinton has an opportunity to set his priorities strait by placing national security first in dealing with China.
He needs to explain why China's WTO membership serves US interests. By first turning away a trade deal with China last April and then celebrating the conclusion of a similar pact in November, Clinton created a high degree of skepticism about the merits of the agreement. The burden is now on him to make the case explaining why China's WTO membership serves US interests, and how this bilateral trade agreement will deliver on its promises.
Clinton should also describe how the US will protect American security and promote freedom in China after Beijing receives permanent normal trade relations status.
Permanent extension of China's normal trade status will do away with the debate over its annual extension. He should explain how legitimate security and human rights concerns will be effectively addressed absent this congressional forum.
Topping the list of what Clinton should not do is speak of China as a strategic partner. US interests and values remain significantly different from those espoused by Beijing and the term strategic partner is easily misunderstood to be synonymous with ally. Therefore talk of strategic partnership is misleading and potentially dangerous.
He should not perpetuate the false debate over engagement vs. containment. Instead of defending his policy on its merits, Clinton consistently appeals to a straw man argument against containing or isolating China. Few if any of his critics advocate such a policy. The debate is over the terms of US engagement with China, not whether China can or should be contained or ignored.
He should not treat normal trade relations as a panacea for China's ills. Clinton frequently extols the virtues of trading with China and has professed his belief that this will inevitably lead to greater freedom and democracy in China. Normal trade is an important element of US policy towards China, but on its own will not sufficiently address security and political concerns. Democracy is not inevitable, it must be built.
Clinton should not blame Taiwan for instability in the Taiwan Strait. During Clinton's tenure as president, tension in the Strait has increased significantly. The administration frequently attempts to place respon-sibility for such tension on the shoulders of Taiwan's democratically elected president. He should set the record strait by correctly identifying Beijing's provocative military posture as the primary destabilizing force in the Strait.
Much work remains to be done for Bill Clinton to build his legacy on China policy. China must conclude its remaining bilateral trade negotiations, the WTO must draft China's accession protocol and the US Congress will need to amend the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of the 1974 Trade Act to make China's normal trade status permanent.
For Clinton, this year's work begins with his State of the Union address. If he is able to use any of the above advice, perhaps Clinton can improve his chances to push this last major China initiative through to the end.
Stephen J. Yates is senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Center in Washington, DC.
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