US Engagement With China
By Frank Ching
President George W. Bush's attendance in the Olympic Games despite domestic political pressure reflects his realization that it is important to establish a balance so that while the United States may chide Beijing from time to time on human rights, the overall approach is one of engagement.
This policy has been largely successful and ought to be continued by whoever succeeds him in the White House.
In what was probably his last major policy address on Asia before leaving office, Bush said in Bangkok that the Taiwan issue was a ``key area of cooperation'' between Washington and Beijing, responsible for the peace and stability that now characterizes the Taiwan Strait.
It was not always like that. Early in his administration Bush wanted to upgrade relations with Taiwan and saw China as a strategic competitor but September 11 put paid to such notions.
In the speech, the president took a strong stand on human rights, declaring: ``America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.''
China no doubt understands the political pressure Bush was under. After all, the House of Representatives had called on Bush in a 419-1 vote to make a strong public statement while attending the Olympics.
Beijing was so appreciative of his determination to attend the Games that, asked about his address, a foreign ministry spokesman, while asserting that China strongly opposed ``using human rights and religious issues to interfere in other countries' internal affairs,'' emphasized that Sino-American relations ``have kept a sound momentum of development over the past years'' and ``the two sides have conducted effective dialogue, exchanges and cooperation in extensive bilateral fields and major international and regional issues.''
This was in stark contrast to China's reaction to the congressional resolution, which was condemned as the action of ``a handful of anti-China congressmen'' with ``ulterior motives to politicize, disrupt and sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games.''
From China's standpoint, the U.S. and China have had a relatively good relationship, with literally dozens of dialogues on a wide variety of topics and at various levels.
China is concerned that the new occupant of the White House, whoever it may be, may not continue such dialogues. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who co-chaired the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Annapolis, Maryland in June with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, called on China and the United States to continue to make good use of this ``important platform.''
While in Beijing Bush also inaugurated a new American embassy ― the largest in the world except for the one in Iraq. China inaugurated its new embassy in the United States the previous week, the largest in Washington.
Referring to the new embassy, Bush said: ``To me it speaks of the importance of our relations with China. It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations. It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.''
The twin dedications reflect the importance that each country accords to the other and the strong and mutually beneficial nature of the relationship, one that is likely to be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century.
But the congressional vote is a reality check, a reminder that all is not going to be sweetness and light in that bilateral relationship regardless of which political party wins the White House.
While the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president means that Taiwan should be much less of a problem in the coming four years than in the previous eight, human rights issues and economic problems are likely to continue to dog the relationship.
But the reality is that human rights have improved in China over the last 30 years and, as Bush himself acknowledged, ``change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and traditions.''
The president, in his speech, also addressed American economic relations with China and other Asian countries, saying: ``Unfortunately, our country sometimes sends mixed signals about the openness of our economy.
Voices of economic isolationism do not represent the interests of the American people.'' One key area that needs to be addressed is the facilitation of Chinese investment in the United States.
While competition, even antagonism, will occasionally characterize the relationship, cooperation should be the dominant theme.
The U.S. and China will have to work together on such issues as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the environment, climate change and pandemic diseases. Otherwise, the world will not have much of a chance for a bright future.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong. He can be reached at Frank.email@example.com.