Washington Journal of Modern China, Spring 2001/ Volume 7, No. 1


History and Leadership in U.S.-China Relations

J. Stapleton Roy

The following remarks were delivered on April 23, 2001 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at a luncheon hosted by the U.S.-China Policy Foundation.

Our relationship with China is, in the eyes of many, the first test of the new Bush administration. Even without the recent plane incident, we would be certain to be in the middle of a continuing public debate over what the nature of our relationship with China should be.

 To think intelligently about the future, obviously, we should take as our starting points both the past and the present situation. For those of us who worked on China relations during the 1960s and 1970s, there is a certain irony in the fact that both the United States and China seem to be having difficulty stabilizing our relationship. After all, the moment when Ping-Pong diplomacy sprang unheralded onto the world scene 30 years ago was a time when China was backward, isolated, and in the ideological throes of the Cultural Revolution.  China and the United States at that time were far more different in every way than is the case today.  Bilateral trade was nonexistent. Bilateral visits consisted of a handful of carefully screened visitors in each direction. The United States had diplomatic relations and a defense pact with the government on Taiwan–an archrival, of course, of the Beijing government. And as we all know, the only common interest we shared in those days was the shared concern about Soviet power.

Even knowing this background, a visitor from Mars today would be surprised to find the seeming gulf between China and the United States looming so large at a time when China has opened itself up to the outside world in ways unimaginable 30 years ago. China has adopted a form of market economics with Chinese characteristics and produced one of the fastest-growing economies in the world; it has sent tens of thousands of its best and brightest not only to the United States but to other Western countries to spend years studying; and it has developed enormous common interests with Taiwan in trade and investment. None of these things would have been imaginable 30 years ago.

 But some of us here today are not from Mars and, for us, the present situation is not so difficult to understand. Experienced practitioners of diplomacy have long recognized that foreign policy problems are more difficult to manage when they are dominated by domestic forces. It's no accident that trade in agricultural products is always the most difficult area to liberalize in international trade negotiations because of the traditional role that agricultural blocs have in domestic policies, whether in France, in Japan, or in the United States.

If we look at the past 30 years of U.S.-China relations, several things are obvious. During the period from 1971 to 1989, the bilateral relationship was largely driven by foreign policy considerations. As I noted earlier, we shared a common concern about Soviet power.  The Taiwan issue, which engaged domestic forces in both countries, was first compartmentalized and then placed within a mutually agreed framework for management.  China's reform and openness policies, once adopted in late 1978, held out the hope that China's domestic situation, both economically and politically, was converging with the market economies and more open political systems that marked all of the successful models in the world.

During the period from 1989 to 2001, however, the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship has been largely driven by domestic considerations. The key factors precipitating this change, of course, were the Tiananmen incident and the collapse of the Soviet Union–two events that almost coincided, in broad historical terms.

In the U.S. case, domestic attitudes were heavily influenced by negative images of China's human rights practices and by the absence of political reform. In China's case, the perception grew that the United State was no longer in compliance with the mutually agreed framework for managing the Taiwan issue in relations between Washington and Beijing. We don't need to debate whether this perception was accurate; in objective terms, it existed. This had the effect of engaging Chinese nationalism on the Taiwan issue in a manner that impacted on relations with the United States. All of these factors came together in the recent incident involving the U.S. EP-3 aircraft, for one of the most disturbing factors was the degree to which not just the governments, but the publics in each country had diametrically opposing views of what happened and where the responsibility lay.

It's tempting under these circumstances to conclude that we are locked in a descending spiral, where actions in each country will precipitate reactions that willy-nilly will worsen the relationship.  My advice, however, for those who demean the diplomatic art by assuming a certain inevitability in international relations, is to re-read Barbara Tuchman's study The Guns of August, which dealt with the question of how the great powers in Europe drifted into World War I with incalculable consequences for Europe, Asia, and the world for the next three decades, if not longer. They might also reflect on why Singapore is not simply a collection of mud flats; on why Indonesia managed to multiply by 20 times its per capita income over a 30-year period, while Burma sank to become one of the poorest countries in East Asia, if not the world; and on why Japan's economy has stagnated for over a decade. The answer in each case is leadership, which makes a defining difference in world affairs.

I would put forward the proposition that there is nothing inevitable about the nature of the relationship that will emerge between China and the United States. Enormous challenges lie ahead between the two countries, but none is beyond the capability of wise leaders to manage successfully. To get where self-interest should drive us, which is a constructive relationship between the two countries despite our differences, in my view will require two things:

First, we need to strike a healthier balance between domestic and foreign policy factors in managing the relationship. We need a balance that neither trivializes human rights concerns nor permits them to dominate perceptions and policies to the exclusion of other vital interests.

Second, we need to adopt a new strategic perspective for viewing the relationship. If we allow policies to drift, East Asia is heading for trouble. We all know that rising powers have a tendency to destabilize regional relationships, whether one looks at the case of France at the beginning of the 19th century, Japan at the end of the 19th century, or Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. In each case, the common factor has been the refusal of the rising power to acknowledge or respect the legitimate interests of its neighbors. In each case, this led to overreaching and crisis with enormous costs for all involved parties. Does this pattern have to play itself out again in East Asia as China finally finds a successful path to wealth and power?  It could, but it need not.

If we look at the region, we can see three sets of issues. In Northeast Asia, the issue is whether a stronger and wealthier China can coexist successfully with a Japan that recovers its economic vitality.  That is not a given. One can see easily how they could not coexist successfully together, but there's no reason why they should not be able to.

In the East China Sea, the issue is whether the Taiwan issue can be stabilized in a manner satisfactory to all parties, so that Taiwan neither becomes a platform for power projection against China or a platform for the projection of Chinese power. In the South China Sea, the issue is whether China and the countries of Southeast Asia can manage their conflicting claims in a mutually accommodating way.

The United States is relevant to all of these issues, but its national interests would be served by a successful combination of all of them. In fact, the big challenge for us will be recognizing that a wealthier and more powerful China has to be dealt with and will define its interests in ways that are not the same as a weaker and less prosperous country.
For its part, China, will have to recognize that the United States, historically, has had interests in East Asia that are not going to go away. China needs to take those interests into account in defining its new role in the region.

In essence, I would argue our relationship with China, and with East Asia as a whole, needs to be conceptualized and addressed in ways that maximize prospects for favorable outcomes and that minimize the inevitability of pessimistic results.  Getting our relationship with China right would be a good starting point.

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