Commentary

A New President, A New China Policy

Foreign policy has taken an unexpectedly prominent place in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, but one issue not yet receiving much attention is how the outcome might affect U.S. policy toward China. The conventional wisdom, both in the United States and East Asia, is that a victory by Vice President Al Gore would mean a continuation of the Clinton administration’s policy, while a victory by Gov. Bush would lead to a more hard-line policy toward Beijing and more enthusiastic support for Taiwan. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong in crucial respects.

It is true that Bush has been highly critical of President Clinton’s tendency to treat Beijing as a potential “strategic partner” of the United States. In his first major foreign policy address more than a year ago, Bush stressed that China was a “strategic competitor,” not a strategic partner. Given that attitude, and the similar views of most Republicans in Congress, a Bush administration would distance itself from that aspect of Clinton’s policy. The new administration would also almost certainly take a much harder line on Beijing’s export of sensitive military technology to so-called rogue states.

Nevertheless, those people in Taiwan and elsewhere in East Asia who predict a radical change in policy toward China under a Bush administration are likely to be surprised. Most of the governor’s foreign policy advisors are pragmatists who held mid-level positions in his father’s administration and are not about to embark on an ideological crusade against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Furthermore, the business community, whose highest priority is to maintain friendly relations with Beijing to sustain growing trade and investment ties, has even more influence in the Republican Party than it does in the Democratic Party. A Bush administration would be extremely hesitant to take any action that might anger that crucial political constituency.

The probable result of such conflicting pressures and incentives would be to produce a policy only modestly different from the Clinton administration’s approach. Talk of a U.S.-PRC strategic partnership would disappear, sanctions against firms associated with the People’s Liberation Army would be imposed more readily, and Beijing would receive clearer warning not to threaten Taiwan. On the other hand, those who expect the new administration to greatly increase arms sales to Taiwan are likely to be disappointed. Indeed, a Bush administration might well continue its predecessor’s tendency to pressure Taipei to make concessions and be more receptive to negotiations about reunification. Even the campaign for an East Asian theater missile defense program is likely to proceed cautiously — unless the PRC engages in a new round of saber rattling.

Just as a Bush administration would probably be less hard-line toward China — and less supportive of Taiwan — than is generally expected, policy under a Gore administration would likely be something more than a mere continuation of the Clinton approach. Gore has a strong moralistic streak and is deeply offended by the human rights abuses committed by the Beijing regime. The human rights lobby is especially strong within the Democratic Party and will raise that issue forcefully with a new Democratic president. Indeed, two of the most outspoken critics of the PRC’s human rights policy, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Tom Lantos, are prominent Democrats and close Gore associates.

In addition, Gore has stronger ties with (and is more dependent on) U.S. labor unions than was Clinton. It is revealing that Gore initially took a skeptical position toward permanent normal trade relations for China and sought to appease labor leaders by proposing that various conditions be attached. He changed his position only in response to enormous pressure from the White House. Given the protectionist sentiments of the labor unions, and their influence on Gore, trade could become an unexpected source of friction between China and the United States under a Gore administration.

But those who believe Gore’s China policy would mirror Clinton’s may be right in one sense: It could resemble the policy Clinton embraced when he took office. Recall that President Clinton at first took a very hard line toward Beijing — lecturing PRC leaders on human rights and threatening to condition trade relations on improvements in that area. Indeed, during the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Clinton denounced President Bush for “appeasing the butchers of Beijing.” It was only after his hard-line approach sparked dangerous tensions in U.S.-PRC relations that the new president adjusted his strategy. Gore could revive that earlier, confrontational approach.

Change is coming in Washington’s China policy. The direction it takes will depend on who wins the White House, but even then, it may be a direction that surprises policymakers in Washington — and Beijing.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of 12 books on international affairs.