China, a Problematic Partner: Where Does The US Stand?

China has always been a problematic partner for the United States. Ever since President Richard Nixon first landed in Beijing in 1972, subsequent administrations oscillated from blind admiration to blind opposition towards the most populous country on earth. Where does the incumbent cabinet stand? The problem is that neither President George W. Bush nor his secretaries can answer this question.

Just as he promised over a year ago, President Bush will attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing. Apart from him, there will be a plethora of other world leaders with such notable figures such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Japanese Premier Yasuo Fukuda. Conspicuous by their absence, on the other hand, will be British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hans-Gert Poettering, the speaker of the European Parliament, took it one step further and called on participating sportsmen not to shy away from demonstrating their political views.

Regardless of Bush’s opinion that his visit is purely for “sports, not politics,” his presence will be unequivocally seen as a political manifestation. This view is supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that “it is incumbent on the United States to find areas of cooperation and strategic agreement with Russia and China, even when there are significant differences.” The military and economic rising of China has made it a valuable ally for any serious player, be it America or any other country. In her article subtitled “American Realism for a New World,” Rice insists that there is no alternative to a close partnership with the emerging Asian power.

This position contrasts significantly with what the president and his administration presented only a few years ago. During his presidential campaign in 2000, George W. Bush promised that, unlike the Bill Clinton cabinet, he would treat China as a “competitor, not a strategic partner.” One year into his first term, a serious crisis in Sino-American relations developed when Paul Wolfowitz, the then undersecretary of defense, demanded the US Army destroy 600,000 berets made in China. In 2005, on his debut visit to Beijing, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned his hosts that “many countries, for example, have questions about the pace and scope of China’s military expansion.”

Although both Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld have been long gone from the government, Washington still struggles to design a comprehensible strategy towards the People’s Republic of China. Different factions within the administration vie with one another to make their position the leading one. The realists, headed by Condoleezza Rice, argue for a realistic approach, free of moral considerations. On the other end, there are the neoconservatives and conservatives who see in China an ideological enemy, much like the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Unfortunately the inner feuds prevent the Bush cabinet from adopting any cohesive strategy.

If the United States wants to maintain its status as the leader of the free world, it cannot put economic issues over moral principles. Especially, the incumbent administration that has made (at least officially) human rights and democracy the vocal points of its foreign policy should more decisively encourage China to respect these basic values. Not attending the opening ceremony would send a positive sign of where President Bush and America stand.