Clinton Versus Bush on China

Tom Plate – UCLA Asia Institute

LOS ANGELES — Presidential indolence in foreign policy knows no partisan label.
When Georgetown University Prof. Anthony Lake put relations with China at the top of his list of America’s most major national-security concerns, he got no argument from anyone in the packed hotel ballroom in downtown Los Angeles. China is almost always on the mind of even a semi-conscious West Coast American. It’s so slam-dunk obvious.
But it wasn’t so obvious to the Clinton administration during its first term, when Lake himself served as the president’s National Security Advisor. It was still ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ time and foreign-relations took a back seat. It was difficult to get Bill Clinton’s attention on an international issue unless there was a super-charged domestic U.S. constituency all fired up over it. Clinton, inaugurated in 1993, didn’t get around to visiting China until 1998. Pathetic.
A frustrated Warren Christopher, the secretary of state in Clinton’s first term, stood down after four years; Lake stepped down in 1997. And so when Lake, in a riveting, informal chat Thursday (Feb. 24) to a Los Angeles World Affairs Council audience, sounded a note of frustration that the Bush administration did so little to engage dangerous North Korea during its first four years in office, allowing Pyongyang much time to work on its nuclear potential and to nasty-up the tension, he wasn’t making a mere partisan point. He has seen more than one president dawdle when it came to foreign-policy concerning Asia.
Nor was Lake, who once worked for President Richard Nixon and resigned over the bombing of Cambodia, wholly negative about the Bush administration. “It’s approximately on the right course,” he calculated, with all-important China, mostly steering clear of the right wing’s doomsday alarmism about its militarism and the left wing’s near-monomaniacal obsession with the human-rights issue, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
But on balance, Lake is realistic, not idealistic, about the prospects for Sino-U.S. cooperation. The professor scoffed at his former boss’ boyish enthusiasm for a “strategic partnership” with China, realizing there is no Santa Claus in Beijing. That unwise characterization, he commented, “devalued U.S. relations with our true partners.” The bilateral relationship is bound to constantly oscillate between ad-hoc instances of cooperation and periodic bouts of irritation and competition.
On the irritation front, you have first and foremost Taiwan, the off-shore  island of entrepreneurial democracy and economic accomplishment with an elected president and vice president arising from the fiery cauldron of the  pro-independence party: “Never underestimate how emotional and important this issue [of potential formal Taiwan independence] is to China,” he said. As the allure of Communist ideology has thinned, Chinese authorities have been relying on a rising nationalism to help maintain a sense of solidarity among its 1.3 billion people: “Taiwan is very personal to them. China worries me.”
The best overall approach is a sensible, balanced one, as Lake suggests. Those of us who truly care about Taiwan need to persuade it to abandon the formal-independence kick; those of us who value mature, adult relations with China need to make it “crystal clear,” in Lake’s phrase, that military action against Taiwan “will lead to grave consequences.” The former national security advisor claims he was the first to lay down this unequivocal line with Beijing, in 1996.
On the ad-hoc cooperation front, Lake pointed to Beijing’s efforts to keep North Korea engaged in the on-again-off-again six party talks. Two weeks ago Pyongyang threw a more or less typical tantrum, declared itself a nuclear power, and stomped that it was staying away from the talks devised and hosted by Beijing. But, now, this week, North Korea looks to have agreed to return to the negotiating table, in the aftermath of a hurried visit to Pyongyang by Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department. China is North Korea’s leading aid provider and top ally.
It’s easy to over-estimate China’s clout with North Korea, but it has more than anyone else. And its clout generally is rapidly rising. “We have to recognize that China’s power is growing in Asia,” he said, “and ours is declining.” Lake recommended greater U.S. efforts to compete economically in the region and to use all our “soft-power” (non-military) tools of influence, persuasion and charm to win friends and neutralize enemies.
Lake did lambaste the Bush administration for running up record budget deficits, now currently eased by huge foreign purchases of U.S. treasury investments, especially by Japan and China. That can’t go on indefinitely, of course, and either country could precipitate a run on the U.S. dollar by a large-scale selling of our bonds. “Get China real angry,” he whispered, and simply by putting “sell” rumors out into the international bond markets, it could rock U.S. financial stability. Hey Tony, keep it to yo

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