New U.S.-China alliance untrustworthy

The saying used to be, “Only Nixon could go to China.” Now another American president has made a historic visit to the People’s Republic and has come home with assurances of its cooperation in the war on terrorism. But encouraging as these new commitments are, Americans should not conclude all problems between the United States and China have been resolved.

The president has stopped calling the PRC a “strategic competitor,” his foreign policy mantra during last year’s presidential campaign. But George W. Bush gave his recent meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin no higher praise than, “I, too, felt like we had a good meeting.” As The New York Times rightly notes, this falls short of Bush’s statement after meeting with Vladimir Putin that he had looked into the Russian president’s eyes and seen a man he could trust.

For its part, China continues to insist on U.N. leadership in the war on terrorism, an oft-repeated and not-so-subtle diplomatic code for China’s opposition to a strong U.S. presence in Asia. Bates Gill of the Brookings Institution has correctly said that, although Beijing has backed off its “American hegemony” rhetoric, the PRC is focused on what benefits it stands to gain from the current crisis. The underlying economic, military and cultural clashes that have repeatedly brought China and the United States to the brink of war did not disappear on Sept. 11.

Even absent other issues, one word alone – which reared its head again during last week’s Asian economic conference – could disrupt a Sino-American accord at any time: Taiwan. Thirty years of diplomatic legerdemain has not fooled anyone into thinking the U.S. “one China” policy is anything more than a diplomatic stopgap while Washington hopes the question of China’s “renegade province” will miraculously resolve itself or quietly fade into irrelevance. American envoys will continue providing vague reassurances of American intentions in exchange for trade deals with Beijing, while their military counterparts prefer to make deals with Taiwan, equipping the island with F-16s, AWACS command aircraft and other high-tech weaponry – all reinforced by the ever-present U.S. 7th Fleet.

China’s human rights record, temporarily off the diplomatic agenda, will eventually re-emerge, as controversial as ever, as will disputes over environmental controls on China’s developing industries. Import restrictions and intellectual property protections have grown continually more important as the value of trans-Pacific trade has steadily risen. These issues contain myriad potential flashpoints against a backdrop of two nations battling for regional ascendancy while East Asian nations band together in what The Washington Post calls with no exaggeration “a new arms race.”

Amicable relations between two great powers can only improve the international situation. But the United States should not confuse China’s cooperation – particularly self-interested cooperation – with passive acquiescence to U.S. dominance.