Washington Post



We don't need a new accord with China

By James Mann
Friday, January 11, 2002

For more than a decade now, the Chinese government and some Americans have been yearning for a magic potion that would somehow instantly transform relations between Washington and Beijing and restore the security partnership that existed in the 1970s and 1980s.

These efforts began with the first Bush administration, which dispatched national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to Beijing in December 1989 on an ill-fated mission that tried but failed to restore relations to what they had been before China's Tiananmen crackdown earlier that year. Richard Holbrooke's proposal for a "fourth communique" between the United States and China [op-ed, Jan. 2] should be seen as the latest example of this chimerical quest.

The attempt is doomed to failure, like its predecessors, because it tries to revive the cozy Sino-American relationship forged in the era of the historic Nixon opening but comes at a time when the geopolitical situation is vastly different. In the 1970s and '80s, China was thought to be of surpassing importance for America's effort to contain the Soviet Union.

Even if one assumes that the current campaign against terrorism is comparable to the Cold War, China's significance to the anti-terror campaign is far less central than it was in containing Soviet power. China is merely one of many important countries whose help we seek in combating terrorism. Moreover, given China's continuing political repression, establishing some new security partnership today would convey the impression that the United States has decided to set aside its concerns about the anti-democratic nature of the Chinese regime.

Holbrooke's idea is a particularly poor one. Any attempt to work out a fourth communique would undercut the very objective he seeks, which is to improve relations between the United States and China. The negotiations could bring out and exacerbate the many profound disagreements between the countries, and the two sides could wind up more deeply divided than before.

Beijing would attempt to use negotiations over a fourth communique to extract some new American statement about Taiwan's relationship to China. That is a certainty, because China has sought new American concessions on Taiwan before every recent summit meeting between the two countries. Most likely China would seek to have the United States redefine its vague "one-China" policy in such a way that this country would accept the Beijing government's much narrower, more specific definition of what "one China" means: that Taiwan is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China. The United States wouldn't and shouldn't buy that.

For their part, American officials would seek new statements from China's Communist government concerning dissent, political freedom and democracy. But the regime in Beijing is not going to go along. It still refuses to allow any organized political opposition or dissent.

China's leaders claim their population of 1.3 billion people is too backward and uneducated for democracy. But this argument can't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. If education levels are to be the test for democracy, then how about the people of Shanghai, who are bright, talented and overwhelmingly literate? It's hard to see why they are any less capable of choosing their own leaders than are people in South Korea, Japan or Taiwan. Yet the popular mayor of Shanghai was just dumped and replaced, in the usual fashion, by the Communist Party leadership.

Holbrooke's argument is that Washington and Beijing can simply acknowledge and then set aside these differences in a new communique. But what exactly would we agree upon? That both governments are against terrorism? We can't even agree on the definition of terrorism, which China suggests should be broad enough to cover its campaign to wipe out dissent by Uighurs in western Xinjiang Province.

During the Nixon era, when Chou Enlai once attempted to explain the Cultural Revolution to Henry Kissinger, Kissinger carefully responded that the United States had no interest in China's internal affairs. Today no American president could make such an assertion. The three communiques with China negotiated between 1972 and 1982 stand as symbols of that bygone era, and Holbrooke's fourth communique would represent an effort to turn back the clock to the approaches and methods of the past.

America and China can talk and do business together without the formality or symbolism of a new communique. A fourth communique ought to be postponed until it can be negotiated with a different, more democratic China.

James Mann is senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.