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China is forgotten in the
U.S. presidential contest



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

October 20, 2004

LONDON - In 1967 when he was a presidential candidate Richard Nixon caused a sensation with his Foreign Affairs article, "Asia after Vietnam", anticipating a more conciliatory policy towards China. In his first presidential debate Bill Clinton tore into George Bush Senior accusing him, in effect, of being soft on China and promising that if he were elected the age of conciliation would end.

Now in the recently held presidential debates between George W. Bush and Bob Kerry China policy appears to have come to a silent stop. Judging by the total lack of debate China is a non-issue between them, not even worth a few sentences of analysis.

Before Nixon came to power "Red China" was portrayed in America and much of the West as a nation bent on the domination of Asia. Its admission to the United Nations was firmly refused.

Nixon turned all this on its head. He decided to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet rift and enlist China as a counterweight to Soviet power. His historic visit to Beijing launched a campaign to persuade the American electorate that China was the good communist and the Soviet Union the bad one.

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"The Chinese were courteous, industrious, family orientated, modest to the point of being shy. They had the most wonderful and ancient cultural conditions; they were wizards at ping-pong; they loved giant pandas", so wrote at the time the Soviet author, Vladimir Pozner, mocking American attitudes.

Nixon was not naïve about China but the newly wooed American public certainly was. It took a long time for American policy to settle down. Ronald Reagan took Nixon's policy to an absurd conclusion dreamily speaking, during his visit in 1984, of "so-called communist China". His successor, George Bush, also leant over backwards to placate Beijing, uttering only mild disapproval when protesting students were mowed down in Tiananmen Square in 1989. With indecent haste Bush dispatched Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor, on a secret mission to Beijing to reassure Beijing that the American relationship was intact.

Clinton, going into reverse, tried to stir it all up with campaigns against China's human rights record and prison labor in Chinese factories, which appeared at the time to resonate with public opinion, only to realize later that he was shooting himself in the foot. To open up China it was necessary to open wide the West's doors to it: to encourage its economic development with trade and in this way it would find itself entering into the rules of the global market place- a necessary first step towards democracy.

Towards the end of his term of office Clinton found the right mix: emphasizing all manner of economic, educational, and cultural cooperation but keeping a softer but nonetheless audible voice on human rights by annually voting against China at the UN's Human Rights Commission meeting (a lead which the Europeans wrongly refuse to emulate). George W. Bush has continued the policy and it seems to work.

China prospers, the human rights situation steadily, albeit too slowly, improves and, as Secretary of State Colin Powell has noted, China has voted for all the key UN Security Council resolutions against terrorism and is playing a helpful role in trying to end the stalemate over North Korea's nuclear weapons' programnes. National security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, claimed recently that the U.S. "has the best relationship that any administration has had with China."

It might well be true that the relationship with China has never been better. This is progress. The first choice must indeed be a peaceful, economically productive, relationship. Only if that is pursued will the atmosphere within China become conducive to improvements in justice, human rights and democratic participation. But this doesn't mean there aren't important issues to be debated and critical decisions to be made.

Most important is not to be overawed by China at the expense other important Asian powers. Within the lifetimes of our young people India, a sophisticated democracy, will overtake China and it is important that the West focus on India with the same obsessiveness, even more so, than it does on China.

Second, the U.S. must up the ante some more notches with the Europeans over the German and French attempt to have the EU arms embargo with China dropped. This particular quarrel with Europe is too important to lose if Taiwan's security is to be assured.

And third, make sure the trumpet on human rights always has a clear and penetrating sound, without making the volume of the notes depend on other Chinese policies.

Kerry could have raised these points in the debates. He didn't. And, win or lose, America's China policy will be the weaker for it.


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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