In the May 2000 issue, I noted that the Clinton administration had mistakenly pursued permanent most favored nation treatment for China without due regard for human rights abuses or Taiwan security concerns, and I highlighted the blunder of an approach defined by “strategic partnership” in thrall to the allure of the potential of a billion customers for our goods and services. It was to be expected that an incident such as the recent Hainan surveillance plane “accident” would be used by the Chinese to test the resolve of the new administration. On balance, considerable conservative commentary to the contrary, I believe President Bush acted decisively and in a measured way in dealing with the incident before it became a media “hostage” circus. This incident was instructive on several points. First, forget strategic partnership. China and the U. S. are competitors in almost every sense and adversaries on many fundamental issues. Second, as pure ideological communism has waned in China, its leaders have emphasized a virulent nationalism in order to continue their sway. As the Wall Street Journal has noted, the Chinese idea of sovereignty, which has been elevated to a sacred principle, is based on an outdated 19th century version that does not recognize multi-lateralism and emphasizes raw power. Third, the U. S. stands in the way of a major Chinese objective—military and economic hegemony in the Far East, including unification with Taiwan on their terms as well as control of the area’s shipping lanes.
Henry Kissinger has defined the two poles of American opinion on China policy as the “engagement/strategic partnership” crowd and the “adversarial/containment” crowd. I suppose I tend slightly to the latter, and I don’t think this would produce a Soviet Union-style Cold War replay. Although I support trade engagement, I don’t believe that our China policy can be dictated by a chamber of commerce approach that assumes that Jeffersonian democracy will necessarily follow from liberalized trade engagement. The keys are the rule of law and private property, which have historically been the determinants of the success of liberal democracy, and these, as Condoleeza Rice has noted, have a moral underpinning, which the Chinese don’t yet have. In fact, as I watched the Hainan incident unfold, I was reminded of Mortimer Adler’s admonition to be careful of equating Eastern and Western concepts of truth in moral philosophy. They don’t mesh because the Far Eastern view is that the derivation of the truths of religion, philosophy, mathematics, science, and technology are completely different. The principle of non-contradiction, self-evident in the West, is not accepted by many Far Eastern cultures. There is a lot of work to be done to bridge this cultural gap. Meanwhile, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “trust, but verify”.