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U.S./China: Ties A Study In Complications, Perhaps Contradictions

  • Andrew Tully

Since President Richard Nixon resumed U.S. relations with China three decades ago, the two countries have had what seems to be a relation rife with contradictions. On one hand, Washington has encouraged China's efforts to establish a market economy, even championing its entry into the World Trade Organization. On the other, the United States has not forgotten Beijing's bloody crackdown on the student pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It also bristles at China's threats of force against the island nation of Taiwan, which Beijing calls a renegade province.

Washington, 1 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and Chinese diplomats are meeting in Beijing this week (31 January-1 February) to discuss defense issues that are certain to include Taiwan and North Korea.

The United States and China are at odds over Taiwan, but agree that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons.

The Beijing talks also may focus on the United States' insistence on maintaining a 15-year-old Western embargo on arms sales to China. The ban was imposed in response to the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, and Washington says Beijing's human rights record has improved only negligibly since then.

Some European countries say they want to resume arms sales to China, albeit cautiously. A British government spokesman said in Washington on 25 January that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told incoming U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Europe will carefully monitor such sales to ensure that China gets no strategically important weapons.

Claude Barfield, an international trade specialist who served as a consultant to the office of the U.S. trade representative under President Ronald Reagan, told RFE/RL that he doesn't see contradictions in Sino-American relations as much he sees ambivalence.

He said the United States is determined to ensure China does not gain the weaponry to launch an attack on Taiwan.

Beijing views Taiwan, a self-governed island of 23 million people, as part of China and has vowed to bring it back under its control, by force if necessary.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States is obligated to help Taiwan maintain its defenses.

More generally, Barfield said, the United States is also looking to control the growth of China's overall military aspirations.

"Part of this is symbolic and part of it is, I think, concrete," Barfield said. "The United States does not want to see direct high-tech defense technology sold to China, some of which might have an impact on the cross-straits situation [with Taiwan], plus a more general attempt to hold back China's move to become a strategic military power."
China itself is a contradiction: a supposedly communist state with an aggressive market economy.


Meanwhile, Barfield said, the United States is supporting China's ever-growing involvement in the world of trade, despite some economic differences between the two countries. In fact, he said, their positive and negative feelings toward each other do not cancel each other out, but are merely distinct parts of a complex international relationship.

"Both sides are sophisticated. The Chinese are aware of the continuing [U.S.] reaction to Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, they're [the Chinese] also aware of their [own] increasing economic influence around the world," Barfield said. "So they will criticize the United States for [making available] weapons systems for Taiwan or statements trying to stop them from buying military [equipment], but they know it's part of the game. I mean, I don't think it has any long-term negative impacts."

James Lilley, a former ambassador to both South Korea and China, urged care in assuming there is more agreement between Washington and Beijing than may actually exist. For example, he cited friction over the United States' trade deficit with China and the U.S. position that China is artificially undervaluing its currency, the yuan, to maintain its export advantage.

Lilley also argued that many people erroneously believe that the United States and China hold similar positions on North Korea simply because neither wants to see that country develop a nuclear arsenal.

He said there are deep divisions between Washington and Beijing on how to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

"The Chinese do not agree with us all the way on North Korea. There's distance between us," Lilley said. "For instance, they stress that we [the United States] should use seductive means to bring them in [persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions], namely bribe them with food and oil and money. We say we tried that and it didn't work."

In the end, Lilley said, words like "ambivalence" apply more aptly to relationships between allies, such as the United States and France. When it comes to Washington and Beijing, only one word seems to make sense.

"'Contradictions' -- that's the right term to use. This has been true since the beginning, it'll be true for the next 50 years, that there are contradictions in the relationship," Lilley said. "You can have a perfectly vigorous trading relationship, and yet take measures that limit [China's] ability to use military force against its neighbors, particularly Taiwan. But I think you've just got to live with these things."

After all, he said, China itself is a contradiction: a supposedly communist state with an aggressive market economy. As such, he said, it can't expect to deal with the rest of the world, especially the leading capitalist country, without contradictions. And the rest of the world must accept it if it doesn't want to drive China back into isolation.
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