The EP-3 spy plane incident over the South China Sea in April makes one want to paraphrase Santayana: those who don’t know the past are condemned to misunderstand the present. This maxim applies to many of the recent commentaries on the Hainan Island incident, as well as to analyses of U.S.-China relations in general. At the end of the day this leaves some Americans and some Chinese convinced that war is inevitable between the two countries and that we might just as well get on with it. If U.S. relations with China fall into the hands of these folks, the prophecy will indeed be fulfilled. But it need not be so, despite the fact that the U.S. and Chinese cultures have different perceptions of themselves and of the world and potentially conflicting as well as overlapping national interests. Although relations will be a constant challenge, neither individual crises like the Hainan incident—which the Bush administration generally handled with real skill—nor broader U.S.-Chinese relations need get out of hand.
Hong Kong chief executive and former Hoover Institution Board of Overseers member Tung Chee-hwa got the perspective right in a recent interview with the Washington Times. He said, "America is not being told to move over, but to make room for China as a respected and responsible member of the community of nations." Many critics of China today will say, "but China is not behaving responsibly," which is where ignorance of the past distorts judgments on the present and creates crises for the future. And too often those who criticize China for some of its actions (from abuses of human rights to nuclear proliferation) fail to see how provocative and inconsistent Americans have been in recent years and how U.S. actions have fed the eagle-hunters in Beijing.
U.S. policies cannot force China to engage in major constructive changes, but they can strengthen China’s reformist rather than its reactionary impulses.
For starters, Americans tend to discount or at least abbreviate the past when looking to the future, whereas Chinese see the present and future through the prism of a long history. Just a small recent part of that history includes 150 years of domestic chaos and a century of humiliation at the hands of the West. These experiences have fortified traditional views on the need for domestic order and caused or deepened suspicions about Washington’s objectives. Although the Chinese often see things in "all or nothing" terms, so do we, which is one of the main sources of friction between the two countries. Many Americans think we should harangue and punish the Chinese because after thousands of years of doing things their way they don’t suddenly and completely, on our demand, think and act like us. Human rights is the most obvious area of difference but not the only one. These demands are nonstarters at best, for our strident if well-meaning sermons will not force the Chinese to do as we say. Events in China and Chinese leaders’ perceptions of what is in their and China’s interest will carry the day, and sermons will only make it more difficult for us to even coexist as nations.
U.S. policies cannot force major constructive changes in China, but they can strengthen reformist rather than reactionary alternatives in China if they are pursued in the spirit suggested by Tung Chee-hwa. But since the Clinton administration we have far too often stirred up reactionary Chinese nationalism, which was at the core of the Hainan crisis.
Americans tend to see the Hainan incident as one of the Chinese taking advantage of a disabled plane that was forced to land on Chinese territory. The Chinese did indeed confine the American crew for 12 days, but I can imagine that if a Chinese intelligence-gathering plane had been involved in an accident off the coast of New York that killed an American pilot, we might have done the same. This incident was almost certainly an accident, very possibly one caused by the Chinese pilot, as we claim, but why would China be immediately disposed to accept our explanation? To the Chinese—and many around the world—it seems that the infallible and invincible superpower is making a habit of "accidentally" taking the lives of foreign nationals. One Chinese died in the South China Sea, nine Japanese schoolchildren died off of Hawaii two months earlier when their trawler was sunk by a U.S. nuclear submarine, and several Chinese were killed during NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Even our own citizens are being killed with our complicity, as with the missionary and child shot down in April as part of the drug war in South America. Why should Americans be surprised that the crew involved in the South China Sea accident, which landed a U.S. intelligence-gathering plane uninvited in a center of Chinese intelligence on Hainan, would be held for 12 days, apparently under quite tolerable conditions? Such complaining is unseemly in the intelligence business, like launching a war with the pre-condition that no American be killed. Nonetheless, a Gallup poll released at the end of April showed Americans’ opinion of China had plummeted, with 69 percent viewing the Chinese as unfriendly or an enemy.
But the EP-3 incident is just the tip of an iceberg. Historically speaking, recent problems can be traced as far back as the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars or simply to post-Tiananmen incidents. The latter include the Chinese F-8 fighters that were in the United States in 1989 to be rebuilt under a joint U.S.-Chinese military program, which were detained for five years after Tiananmen, as well as the boarding and inspection of a Chinese ship suspected (incorrectly) of carrying poison gas to Iran on the high seas in 1993.
By the late 1990s, the deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations had become almost a free fall:
• Excessive and often ignorant annual debates within and among Congress, interest groups, and the media on human rights in China and whether to grant the country normal trade status created enormous friction. Although individual human rights violations occur regularly today, Chinese actions must be seen in historical context. Nationally, conditions today are infinitely better than in the recent or distant past. During the communist period alone the improvements have been phenomenal. Indeed the Tiananmen "massacre" itself in 1989, with its roughly 1,000 killed around the country, was as nothing compared to the Great Leap Forward (1958–60), when something like 30 million died, and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when at least 400,000 died.
Conditions in China today are far from perfect, but have they improved? Enormously. Americans may have forgotten Kosovo, an official in the Chinese foreign ministry asserted, but "people in other countries are busy learning its lessons."
The prodemocracy demonstrations went on for months in 1989 in Beijing because the top Communist Party bureau couldn’t agree that they should be stopped. The ultimate crushing came, according to Deng Xiaoping (cited in the newly released Tiananmen Papers), to prevent chaos so that economic reforms and the opening to the outside world could continue. One incident from that period stands out and tells the whole story. Who can forget the young man who flagged down the tanks in Tiananmen Square? Under dozens of emperors or Mao Zedong that man would have been crushed without a second thought. Conditions are far from what one hopes they will become, but to say that things have not improved enormously in the past two decades is to close one’s eyes and mind to contemporary Chinese history.
• China has undoubtedly obtained classified military secrets through spies operating in the United States. It may have tried to influence U.S. elections. Any Americans involved should be punished according to the law. But to castigate China on this basis is as juvenile as it is hypocritical. Every government of any consequence in the world spies on countries that are important to it or that have information it wants. The United States is in the vanguard of such activities, spying and interfering throughout the world. The United States is not against interference abroad in principle, only interference abroad by governments that don’t agree with us.
• The Clinton administration caused enormous damage to U.S. relations with China by its caving in to domestic pressure groups. Two important recent examples are Clinton’s treatment of Chinese premier Zhu Rongji on the latter’s visit to the United States in April 1999 to negotiate China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO). After Zhu made important concessions, Clinton nonetheless refused to sign, and Zhu went home through a flak field thrown up by Chinese hard-liners who oppose reforms and better relations with the United States. In effect the hard-liners said, "See, you offered them the moon, and they demanded the sun. We told you that you can’t trust or deal with the Americans." Or recall Clinton’s joining the dissenters at the Seattle WTO meeting later that same year, leaving delegates from China and all over the world aghast.
• The bombing of Yugoslavia was perhaps the most serious foreign policy mistake the United States has made in the post–Cold War period. It is not even primarily that we with our much-touted military sophistication "accidentally" bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. More important in decision-making circles in China and around the world is the fact that we bombed a sovereign country because we disapproved of their elected leader’s domestic policies. A prominent adviser to the Chinese foreign ministry told me in the fall of 2000 in Beijing that, while Americans have largely forgotten Kosovo, "people in other countries are busy learning its lessons."
What are those lessons? (1) The United States supports the rule of law until it finds it more convenient to throw it aside and take military action. That is, diplomacy is fine unless it doesn’t get what we want, in which case we bomb. (2) The United States does not respect national sovereignty and thus at any time may intervene in any country if it objects morally or otherwise to what is going on there. During the Kosovo crisis, Henry Kissinger wrote of "a new style of foreign policy" that is "driven by domestic politics and the invocation of universal moralistic slogans. . . . In the Clinton/Blair version of allied policy, NATO must act because it is the only posse in town and because its motives are pure." China’s obvious concerns are possible international intervention with respect to its claims to Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea (where the Hainan aircraft incident occurred). (3) Countries outside America’s orbit who do not want to be dictated to by the United States should unite to defend themselves and each other, which accounts for the rapid and multilayered ties forming between China and Russia, among others. (4) National military defenses—perhaps including nuclear capability—must be expanded, for Yugoslavia almost certainly would not have been bombed if it had had any type of nuclear device.
All these events fed the reactionaries in China, particularly in the military, and seemed to justify their argument that China needs to pursue a much more vigorous policy abroad in opposition to the United States, as it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course this in turn fed the panda-hunters in the United States. Some American hard-liners toward China are wont to quote a statement made by Chinese general Chi Hao-tian: "Viewed from the changes in the world situation and the hegemonic strategy of the United States to create monopolarity . . . war is inevitable." But when did Chi say that? In December 1999, very shortly after the end of Madeleine Albright’s war in Yugoslavia, as is clear from his reference to "changes in the world situation" and "hegemonic strategy." Hence the need to avoid future "Yugoslavias," which the Bush administration seems inclined to do.
The fatal problem with Clinton’s policy toward China, despite its good intentions, was that it was founded on too little understanding and a lack of deep conviction. When domestic or other pressures arose, implementation sometimes became short term, self-serving, and contrary to long-term interests. Of course, U.S. policy should not be based on how it might help reformers in China who are going to be facing enormous domestic challenges in the years ahead. But we should avoid allowing ignorance, equivocation, and domestic politics to determine foreign policy and thereby seriously undercut relations abroad.
Today Chinese leaders are upset by some actions and objectives of the Bush administration, above all its missile defense plans and real or imagined relations to Taiwan. But if Bush conducts a strong and consistent foreign policy that is at the same time respectful of different historical experiences and interests, it is much more likely than Clinton’s to succeed with China in the long run.