Int'l Herald Tribune

The Time Has Come to Rethink U.S. China Policy

Paris, Monday, March 22, 1999

By Jim Hoagland The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - A morally and politically flawed China policy suddenly seems mortally wounded. The outburst of controversy over Beijing's behavior presents a chance for the White House and Congress to come together at last on a China strategy that serves America's interests and values.

Allegations of espionage and campaign finance efforts by Beijing strip away the self-serving abstractions of ''engagement'' as pursued by Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. So does Beijing's furious response to tempered suggestions that the United States may someday sell defensive anti-ballistic missile systems to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

There is a strategic conflict between China and the United States. That conflict now centers on the future of Taiwan, not on human rights or economic policy. Trying to sweep this conflict under the rug of the ''strategic partnership'' that Mr. Clinton has proclaimed with President Jiang Zeminis doomed to fail.

Only if you put Taiwan at its center does recent Chinese behavior toward Washington make sense. And only by recognizing Taiwan's centrality to U.S. policy in the region can Mr. Clinton get his China policy on a steady footing. His compromising on Taiwan, aggravated by China foes in Congress who push too hard in the other direction, isat least as serious a failure as his flip-flop on human rights.

Beijing's envy and fear of Taiwan's sophisticated, legal lobbying in Congress lie at the heart of China's alleged attempts to buy influence in the Clinton White House, but this does not excuse those attempts.

China's reported theft of U.S. nuclear technology does not change the strategic balance, as various apologists for the regime or for the mundanity of espionage have noted in minimizing the Los Alamos lab fiasco. Beijing is not foolish enough to engage the United States in a direct nuclear exchange simply because it gained a decade in warhead miniaturization.

But upgrading its nuclear forces through espionage does fit Beijing's objectives of intimidating Taiwan and steadily raising the potential price to the United States of opposing the mainland's will. Any U.S. commander in chief must now take seriously the Chinese military's boast that it can take out Los Angeles if the United States chooses to defend Taiwan from invasion or direct intimidation such as the missile firings of 1995 and 1996.

The untold part of the sudden deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations is the urgency that the Taiwan issue has gained because of Mr. Jiang's increasingly insistent view that his historic role is to ''reunify'' China by the time he leaves the scene. To do that, the 72-year-old leader must follow the handovers of power in Hong Kong in 1997 and in Macao later this year with the absorption of Taiwan - not in the fullness of time, but in short order.

Mr. Jiang has made this view clear to recent visitors to Beijing, after reportedly stressing it to Mr. Clinton in their 1997 and 1998 summits. Mr. Clinton is said to have failed to respond directly each time. And in public he has steadily retreated from the deliberate ambiguity of previous administrations on U.S. commitments to defend Taiwan against mainland attack. He has not emphasized the centrality of the ''no use of force'' component of U.S. policy on Taiwan.

The administration and Congress should join in reaffirming that the United States will oppose the use of force against Taiwan and is committed to encouraging peaceful, democratic change in Chinese society.

The missile defense controversy provides an occasion to seek binding, verifiable commitments from Beijing not to use force to accomplish unification - thereby eliminating the need for such weapon systems on Taiwan.

And the visit by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Washington next month gives the administration an opportunity to reach a framework agreement with Beijing on economic relations that would be elaborated into a final accord through formal consultations with Congress, which should not be presented with a take-it-or-leave-it choice.