Commentary Magazine

Bowing to Beijing

“I hate our China policy!” Bill Clinton is reported to have shouted during a White House meeting in 1994, just after he had bowed to threats from Beijing and broken the linkage between China’s progress on human rights and its winning of trade status as a Most Favored Nation (MFN). “I wish I was running against our China policy. I mean, we gave them MFN and we change our commercial policy, and what has it changed?”

A good question—and one that, as it happens, Bill Clinton had asked of his own predecessor. A mere two years earlier, Clinton had campaigned for the presidency by decrying the Bush administration’s truckling to the “butchers of Beijing” and promising to make human rights the centerpiece of his own approach. But once in office, although he would occasionally show traces of gumption—in an unscripted moment, Clinton even told the Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1997 that China’s human-rights practices put it “on the wrong side of history”—the record of the President would come to be wholly at odds with the vows of the campaigner.

This past July, in the course of the longest trip to a single country by any American President since Woodrow Wilson went to Paris after World War I, Bill Clinton went farther than any of his predecessors in aligning U.S. policy with Beijing. In so doing, the Clinton administration undermined American alliances, abandoned longstanding American principle, and endangered American interests. The worst of it all is that it was unnecessary.




In a formal sense, the strategy the Clinton administration now calls “engagement” resuscitates, and radically extends, the approach initiated by President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, when it was misleadingly termed “normalization.” Though made up of several parts, then as now the essence of the strategy can be seen through its effects on the island of Taiwan, a democratic state with which we have strong ties but no formal relations since 1979, and which has been excluded from membership in international organizations.

Ceded by China to Japan in 1895, Taiwan was “returned” after World War II to the then-mainland Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek, an American ally. By the late 1940’s, however, Chiang was thoroughly embroiled in a civil war with the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong; as the fortunes of the struggle turned against him, he and his Nationalist forces took refuge on Taiwan. Thus the island became an American concern. With the advent of the Korean war in 1950, the United States secured the Taiwan Strait against Mao, and in 1954 we concluded a mutual-defense treaty with the Chiang-led Republic of China on Taiwan.

Like the new Communist government in Beijing of the People’s Republic of China, the government in Taipei insisted on being recognized as the only legal Chinese authority, and each considered the other’s territory rightfully its own. The United States was thereby confronted with a zero-sum choice. Few doubted that good relations with the vastly larger People’s Republic were in principle a desirable thing, though Mao’s virulent anti-Americanism made the immediate prospect unlikely. But the idea of sacrificing Taiwan was hardly palatable. Not only was its political system, for all its grave faults, better than the one in Beijing, but the native Taiwanese were clearly the victims of history. Better educated and more advanced in many respects than their distant mainland cousins, they had not elected to join the Chinese civil war, and now they were being largely silenced by the fierce authoritarian methods of Chiang’s Nationalist regime.

The American foreign-policy establishment of the 1950’s and 1960’s hoped to find an exit from this dead end at some future point in the proposition that we could deal diplomatically with both governments. Successive administrations explored either a “one-China, one-Taiwan” policy, according to which the island would be considered a fundamentally distinct entity from China, or a “two-China” policy based on the principle of dual recognition. (The latter approach is similar to the one followed today by China itself toward North and South Korea.)

By the 1970’s, however, these moderate and balanced options were on the verge of being supplanted by a previously marginal idea: that Taiwan should be “de-recognized” in favor of Beijing. Two different streams came together in support of this option. By the midpoint of that dark decade, the old American foreign-policy elite was losing its nerve. The defense of South Vietnam had been bungled, and its people seemed destined to be consigned to a grim fate; an assertive Soviet Union was making political and military gains from Asia to Africa to Latin America; in Europe, Portugal appeared on the brink of going Communist. We seemed, in short, to be losing the cold war.

Into the policy vacuum created by the confusion and hesitancy of the old guard stepped a new elite, armed with ideas largely drawn from the intellectual and political arsenal of the Left. Whether or not the proponents of these ideas welcomed the prospect of an American defeat in the global struggle against Communism, they came equipped with an explanation for U.S. setbacks that put the onus squarely on the policies of the old guard, which had backed the wrong side in the Chinese civil war and intervened in Vietnam, and they saw the time as ripe to correct these grave errors.



In the case of China, both schools agreed that, as Communism was growing into an ever more formidable and entrenched force, the moment had come to redirect American policy. Among the younger guard, there were those who wanted to do this for practical reasons, but there were also those who had developed a credulous appraisal of Mao’s regime, in fact one of the most brutal in human history, and a correspondingly distorted critique of the sins of Taiwan, where living standards were actually rising rapidly and elections were held at the grassroots level. Among the old guard, realists favored the change for another reason: extending recognition to Beijing, they calculated, would provide a deterrent balance to the expansionism of the USSR. The idea was to wrest some sort of role for the U.S. in a rapidly worsening international situation by exacerbating the divisions in the Communist bloc, rather as Talleyrand had divided the victors at Vienna in 1815 and thereby, in Henry Kissinger’s phrase, restored a world.

In either case, this meant winning over Beijing, which, even though it stood to benefit from an entente at least as much as the U.S., could be counted on to charge what the traffic would bear. In 1971, Kissinger, then Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and later to become his Secretary of State, made a secret trip to Beijing that was the first step on the road to our eventually recognizing Communist China and breaking with Taiwan. His first meeting was with Zhou Enlai, the Premier, before whom Kissinger recited the formula Beijing had demanded to hear: the United States, he said, did not seek to create “two Chinas; one China, one Taiwan; or an independent Taiwan.” Although he was careful not to say what that left, and indeed omitted the whole episode from his memoirs, there was only one logical possibility: the absorption of Taiwan by China.

“No government less deserved what was about to happen to it than that of Taiwan,” Kissinger would later write with melancholy. That was true enough. But even as he made the requisite noises in Beijing, both he and Nixon also knew something else: the American public would never accept the outright sacrifice of Taiwan. This gave them running room. By the time Nixon himself visited China the following year, diplomatic and military relations with Taipei still firmly in place, the farthest he would go publicly to meet Beijing’s demands was to acknowledge, accurately, that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” The whole point of this pronouncement, contained in a jointly signed document known as the Shanghai communiqué, lay in what it did not say. While declaring to Beijing, in effect, “We recognize you,” it did not say, “We also agree that Taiwan is yours.”

But that hardly ended the matter. In 1979, without prior warning, Jimmy Carter announced in a second communiqué the establishing of full diplomatic relations with Beijing, this time at the price of a break with Taiwan, military as well as diplomatic. Carter spoke emolliently—“the United States is confident that the people of Taiwan face a peaceful and prosperous future”—but said nothing as to how that future would be assured. His plan, soon codified in his administration’s proposed Taiwan Relations Act, offered a role for ultra-low-profile “private” organizations to look after Taiwanese political interests, while making no explicit provisions whatsoever for the island’s defense.

Had things remained thus, Beijing would have moved close to its goal. Once again, however, the American people saved the day. As finally redrafted by Congress, the Taiwan Relations Act stated squarely that U.S. recognition of Communist China rested on the assumption that neither force nor the threat of force would be used against Taiwan, and provided for weapons supplies to ensure the island’s defense. Carter had no choice but to sign.

Finally, in 1982, Ronald Reagan put his signature on a third joint communiqué. In it, the mainland Chinese asserted the peacefulness of their intentions toward Taiwan, and on that condition the United States agreed gradually to reduce weapons sales to the island.



Throughout the 1980’s, this basket of agreements, the so-called “three communiqués” plus the Taiwan Relations Act, governed U.S. policy. In its seeming contradictions, it embodied the subterranean struggle (which continues today) between those policy-makers who expected “normalization” to spell the end of Taiwan and those determined to prevent any such outcome. The odd thing is that, throughout the Reagan years and even beyond, the structure worked remarkably well. U.S.-China relations improved and Taiwan prospered. Although Beijing never explicitly renounced the use of force, both sides understood that, in fact, force was absolutely ruled out, and Beijing refrained from military deployments in the areas near Taiwan. Negotiations in which the two sides treated each other as equals got under way in Singapore in 1993.

By this time, however, two additional factors had intervened to complicate the issue. The first was the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the naked violence of which put paid to the belief, held naively by many foreigners and even by some Taiwanese, that the island had nothing to fear from China. The second was the democratization of Taiwan itself. Over the course of the previous decade, with encouragement from the Reagan administration, Taiwan had abandoned unrealistic claims to the mainland and, most importantly, had reconstructed its political system. Martial law was abolished, political prisoners were released, the press was set free, exiles were welcomed home, and every level of government came to be elected democratically.

The only trouble with these latter developments was that they profoundly displeased Beijing. Bound formally by the three communiqués, China had nevertheless been angling all along to win Taiwan for itself by means of a deal that would be struck over the heads of its people. But in light of Tiananmen, and with power on Taiwan increasingly in the hands of these same people and their democratically chosen representatives, it was becoming clear that no such deal was going to happen. And so, starting in the 90’s, Beijing began reconsidering the possible use of force.

This brings us to the present, and to Bill Clinton. In June 1995, Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s President, was allowed to come to the United States to receive an honorary degree from Cornell. In response to this alleged “provocation”—remember that, in deference to Beijing, the U.S. still does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan—China began firing missiles into waters in the island’s immediate vicinity. In August, Jiang Zemin, China’s President, told the publisher of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that “if we abandon the threat of force against Taiwan, then it is not possible that peaceful unification will be achieved.”

If this was a test, the United States flunked it. However much he may have professed to “hate” his own China policy, or yearn for another, President Clinton responded to China’s violation of the tacit understandings on the non-use of force by doing nothing at all. The State Department’s comment—that the missile firings were “not conducive to peace and stability in the area of the Taiwan Strait”—was utterly inadequate, and helped set the stage for what was to come.

Reading all this, reasonably enough, as a sign of American acquiescence, Beijing next put into place a far more audacious set of “exercises” for early 1996. These exercises were an ugly business. On March 8, two M-9 nuclear-capable ballistic missiles were fired into the shipping lanes off the Taiwanese harbor at Kaohsiung, and another into waters near Taipei’s port of Keelung. On March 18-25, the Chinese rehearsed an invasion of Taiwan with air, sea, and land operations including amphibious-assault drills, troop landings by helicopter, artillery firings, and troop-transport flights.

That Washington would once again refrain from reacting must have seemed a safe bet to the Chinese. As if to make certain, a Chinese general suggested in unsubtle terms to a visiting American diplomat that, whereas in the past the United States could threaten China with nuclear weapons “because we couldn’t hit back,” things had now changed. “You are not going to threaten us again because, in the end, you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei.” And indeed, as “the bludgeoning of Taiwan” (in the words of the New York Times) began, no American reply was initially forthcoming.1

What followed then may seem baffling, but was actually true to form. Washington did finally act: strong warnings were delivered to Beijing, and two carrier battle groups were dispatched to the area, thus putting an end to the immediate crisis. But the reckless display of Chinese brinkmanship had clearly frightened the Clinton administration, and, just as the Chinese general surmised, the intimidation worked. What emerged from the White House was not a renewed emphasis on the need to deter Chinese aggression, or to enhance the security of our democratic allies. Quite the opposite: within a few months, the White House had responded to the Chinese threats and use of violence by unveiling its new strategy of “engagement” with Beijing.




Couched in the language of realism, moderation, dialogue, and respect for the culture of others, the new American strategy, which the President’s trip to China this past July was meant to dramatize, is a transparent exercise in accommodation. As Clinton himself put it, the purpose of his visit was to help “show a full and balanced picture of modern China to the United States and . . . [to] encourage others to come here and others to participate in the life of China.” That “full and balanced picture” is, by definition, a sunny one, and its human face is Jiang Zemin, the rather mediocre figure who is China’s leader.

In Clinton’s Jiang, we meet again that perennial character in cold-war drama, the likable, reasonable Communist and would-be reformer. Hyped beyond recognition, this politician, who once referred to the furor over Tiananmen as “much ado about nothing,” emerged in the President’s tribute to him as

a man of extraordinary intellect, very high energy, a lot of vigor for his age, or indeed any age. And I think he has a quality that is profoundly important at this moment in our history when there is so much change going on. He has a good imagination. He has vision. He can visualize. He can imagine a future that is different from the past.

Jiang, the President was saying, once again reading from the familiar cold-war script, is someone whose tenure in power is good for us, but who needs our help if he is to win the battle against his own “hardliners.” It follows that the way for us to help him is first to understand what he wants, and then to try to give it to him.

Which brings us back to Taiwan. Clinton’s language on this subject, carefully prepared, was intended to signal a fundamental shift, reassuring Beijing that in any forthcoming talks—which Washington in fact looks set to sponsor—the U.S. will support its position on Taiwan’s final status. Previous American formulations had referred only to the hoped-for “peaceful resolution” of the Taiwan issue, avoiding any mention of what such a resolution might consist of. Clinton, by contrast, said that he hoped one day to see “the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan” (emphasis added).

That the President was not misspeaking was confirmed by his staged recitation at a Shanghai press conference of the “three noes.” When the planted question was duly asked, Clinton did not even pause to praise Taiwan’s democracy, something even official Beijing commentators have been known to do on television before they turn to the obligatory criticisms. Instead, he got immediately to the point: the United States, he said, would not support independence for Taiwan; it would not support any solution that would create “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan”; and it would not support the admission of Taiwan to international organizations like the United Nations.

As Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times correctly noted, Clinton’s was “an unprecedented presidential commitment, made on Chinese soil, that ties American policy [to Beijing] more tightly than ever before.” For the question may be asked: why, at this late date in history, should we rule out independence for Taiwan? We support the independence of all the states in the territory of the ex-Soviet Union; we support an independent Bosnia; Hillary Clinton has spoken out for a Palestinian state; even in the case of Kosovo, a State Department spokesman maintains that “independence should be on the table.” Why not for Taiwan? The only possible answer is that Beijing opposes it. And why should we not support membership in the UN for a state that obviously meets every relevant criterion? The answer is the same: Beijing opposes it.

In brief, from an ambiguous and open-ended approach premised on no use and no threat of force, the U.S. has now moved to a strategy, sparked precisely by the successful use of mainland Chinese force against Taiwan, in which the outcome is strictly circumscribed and which carries the implicit warning to the Taiwanese that challenging the new understanding will entail the loss of American support. This is hardly a glorious position for the world’s oldest democracy to be adopting toward a democratic ally. And it is profoundly unrealistic to boot. Does anyone believe that Taiwan is ever going to fly the flag of the People’s Republic of China atop its public buildings, or agree to cease electing its own president, except at bayonet point? Yet our entire strategy invites the display of bayonets, and possibly their use.




Just as the administration has reacted to Chinese intimidation by distancing itself from Taiwan, so it has thrown in its lot with the present political arrangement in Beijing, eschewing any attempt to bring about internal change and basing its hopes for the future on continued “dialogue.” The mistake is no less grievous, and no less foolhardy.

China’s accumulated problems differ in their precise composition from those that brought the Soviet Union to its knees, but they are parallel in scale and gravity. In the economic sphere, the country’s banking system is insolvent, its state-owned enterprises mostly lose money, its currency will probably have to be devalued. In the political sphere, the one-party dictatorship is keeping its lease on life through the encouragement of private economic growth, the vigorous (if selective) repression of dissent, and lots of foreign support.

As Clinton himself told Jiang Zemin a year ago, the tide of history is flowing strongly against Beijing’s dictatorship. The generation now coming to maturity, in a world of spreading knowledge, relative abundance, and rising expectations, will not tolerate indefinitely the archaic and dysfunctional Leninist system now in place. How will it be transformed? What of the crushing legacy of repression? What of Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, where Beijing has flooded the native population with Chinese immigrants, and ravaged the indigenous culture and religion? “All of these things,” in the words of a graffito that appeared in Beijing in English shortly after the Tiananmen massacre, “are to be answered for.”

So far, the answer of the Clinton administration to “all of these things” has been to put itself on the side of dictatorship. True, Clinton is not the first American President to adopt this position toward a Communist regime, and China is not the only Communist regime to have benefited from it. But at least during the era of détente with the Soviet Union there was a kind of excuse. In those days, few informed people thought the end of Communism was nigh or even conceivable, and no one thought much about how the world might be reconstructed after Communism fell. Even when the USSR was finally collapsing, we backed Gorbachev to the bitter end and were nonplussed when the Lithuanians and the rest declared independence.

But all that is presumably behind us, and presumably we have learned our lesson. In light of what we have seen since the mid-1980’s, not only in Eastern Europe and Latin America but across Asia, the notion that China may also one day democratize is no fantasy; it is simple realism. Nor are pro-democratic forces lacking in China, even at high levels. The regime that Clinton visited, after all, is a post-Tiananmen regime. Had he traveled to Beijing not in 1998 but early in 1989, the year that saw, in China, the largest demonstrations in human history in support of democracy, Clinton would have met figures absent from today’s scene like Zhao Ziyang, the liberalizing general secretary of the Communist party.

One who did meet Zhao that year was Chris Patten, then the British governor of Hong Kong. After a rather forced discussion of economic questions, Patten finally asked Zhao “to tell us what was happening all around us.”

With an almost audible sigh of relief, [Zhao] produced from his pocket a card covered in headings and embarked on a long reply. He told us he was confident that legal and democratic avenues would be found to resolve the students’ demands. The students’ concerns about corruption and graft were shared by the party and the government. Zhao was articulate and convincing. He was also throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of the party hard-liners. When this “speech” was reported on the evening news, the students in the square applauded. Zhao’s more mule-headed colleagues presumably began to sharpen their knives.2

We all know what happened. On June 4, the tanks abruptly closed off the path to pluralism and legitimate government; the populace was terrorized; Zhao was placed under house arrest and many of his followers went to prison; and gradually, things got back to “normal,” where they remain today. The means securing this end have been a solid wall of official denial, to which Clinton added a few bricks with his own symbolic appearance in Tiananmen Square.



But the story is hardly over. In a letter smuggled out just before the President’s visit this past July, Zhao wrote hopefully that “we are facing the arrival of a new, open, democratic, and information-age era. What reason do we have to reject the will of the people, cling to the June 4 problem, and block our road to democratic politics?” His words make an especially stark contrast with Clinton’s own awkward comments on the “June 4 problem” when he appeared in Tiananmen Square.

The President’s speech contained not the slightest allusion to what the Chinese themselves might think about the practice of murdering students. For all one could gather from his remarks—“I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life were wrong”—an aversion to official violence is just a cultural peculiarity of Americans, like (in its way) an inclination to democratic politics. Speaking “for China,” Jiang Zemin said as much in his response to the President. But few Chinese, comparing Zhao to Jiang, would be in doubt as to which of them really does speak for his country.

The fact is that Zhao Ziyang, who has never recanted his views, almost certainly enjoys far more support both inside and outside the party than does Jiang. Chinese politics is like a play, in which only one cast is on stage at a time. But other casts are waiting in the wings, or in prison. From this perspective, Zhao and his followers are an unseen but powerful presence of which all Chinese are aware but to which most foreigners, including the President of the United States, seem totally oblivious.

Although the administration behaves as if the main obstacle in U.S.-Chinese relations is mutual misunderstanding, in fact the issues between Washington and Beijing—emphatically including the issue of Taiwan—are consequences of a fundamental and unresolved problem: the unstable and dictatorial political regime of Communist China. Given that Jiang’s government has let it be known that no political reform is planned, we may expect that change, when it does come, will be unplanned, unmanaged, chaotic, and dangerous—to China, to Asia, and to the world. By embracing the Chinese status quo more tightly than any of its predecessors, the Clinton administration is helping to ensure that when that fateful moment arrives, America will have distanced itself from those on whose side its standard should be most firmly planted.




Where do we go from here? To begin with, it must be understood that the alternative to Clinton’s “engagement” policy is not, as the administration would have us believe, the “isolation” of China and a new cold war. Rather, it is engagement of another sort: one in which our allies and our democratic values come first and in which threats of force do not elicit American retreats. It is preposterous to take China pretty much as a given, as we once took the USSR, and then consider how the rest of Asia and the world will have to adjust in deference to its needs, sensitivities, and spheres of interest. To the contrary, our own policy must be based on a security system among us and the democratic states of Asia in which China is not a crucial load-bearing element.

Such a policy, instead of attempting to isolate and pressure Taiwan (“put it in a box,” in the term favored by the administration), would forthrightly support the island’s democratization, push Beijing to accept its reality, and, without foreclosing any options, seek to find it a legitimate place in the international community. It would confront China over the sale of missiles and other weapons to regimes, like Iran and Pakistan, with the potential to cause international mayhem. It would protest vigorously China’s continuing crackdown on human rights, vividly exemplified by the arrest and imprisonment of many dissidents as soon as Clinton left the country. It would recognize democratization as indispensable to a genuinely peaceful future.

Above all, such a policy would proceed from the lessons learned by the end of the cold war in the West. As we once staked too much on the Soviet Union, so we are staking too much on China, going long when we should be hedging, and shorting the fundamentals. By this means we are setting ourselves up for disaster when Chinese Communism sells off. It is time to recognize that the challenge in Asia is not to “restore” a world but to surmount the coming upheaval and help bring about, for ourselves and our allies, the future we wish to live in.



1 On this chain of incidents and its significance, see my article, “How Not to Deal With China,” COMMENTARY, March 1997.

2 This is taken from Patten’s fascinating new book, East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia. Times Books, 320 pp., $25.00.


About the Author

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.