November 22, 2002

Bumpy Road for Sino-US Relations

American public opinion polls taken at the turn of the century show the United States will adopt a containment and engagement strategy towards China, and that Sino-US relations will witness a rough road, alternating between conflict and co-operation in the early 21st century.

A majority of Americans hold an unfavourable view of China and regard China as the greatest “threat?to US security interests, the poll suggests. In the American public’s favourability rating of countries, China comes after Russia and India.

Meanwhile, most Americans believe China is of vital importance to the United States.

Americans are also divided over whether the United States should take a stronger stance or adopt a more co-operative approach towards China.

The biggest controversy among the American public over China is whether the United States should retain normal trade relations or take a firm stand on China’s “human rights abuses.?When the trade issue is raised separately, Americans support trade with China. When faced a choice between trade and human rights, a majority oppose increasing trade with China.

Although Americans do want to take a clear and firm stand against China’s “human rights violations,?they do not want to behave in a punitive or antagonizing fashion, or go so far as to cut off all trade.

Contrary to the controversy over the issue of trade vs human rights, the American public has voiced its unequivocal opposition to the protection of Taiwan with armed forces.

Of course a comprehensive analysis of the poll results should be made for a better understanding of what the public really thinks. And the form of the poll also deserves investigation.

The wording of the questions directly affects the results. For the same issue, different wordings may result in different, sometimes diametrically opposed results.

Media reports also exert noticeable influence on public opinions.

Individual opinion is affected by educational background and income level. For example, skepticism towards PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) runs strongest among Americans with lower incomes and less education.

Some implications for Sino-US relations can be drawn from the public opinion poll results.

The United States will adopt a containment and engagement (congagement) strategy towards China, leaning towards containment.

The US strategy towards China is based on US global strategy on the one hand, and China’s foreign strategy on the other hand.

At the turn of the 21st century, with a relative gain in American strength, the Americans feel more secure and confident, believing that the United States should play a more active role in the world.

Hawkish US foreign policies in the recent past reflect its global strategy and its attempt to retain world leadership. In the foreseeable futu re, the United States will take full advantage of its superior position to adopt a hegemonic foreign policy, in an effort to realize its strategic goal.

On the contrary, China’s foreign strategy is to seek a peaceful external environment for its modernization, which necessitates opposing hegemony and safeguarding world peace. Clearly, the foreign strategies of the two countries are at odds with each other and the United States will regard China as a strategic adversary.

US President George W. Bush’s remark during the presidential campaign and Colin Powell’s remark after he was nominated as Secretary of State that China is a “strategic competitor?of the United States is actually a declaration of the Bush administration’s strategy towards China.

However, in the trends of globalization that lead to an ever increasingly interdependent world, the United States needs China’s co-operation on many transnational issues, among which terrorism and nuclear proliferation are two top foreign policy concerns and priorities of Americans.

Above all, since the United States has great economic interest in China, the United States cannot afford to disengage from China and let go of the huge Chinese market.

The congagement strategy towards China is basically consistent with American public opinion. Furthermore, as the polls reveal, Republicans are much more wary of China than Democrats and independents, which may mean some changes in the US China policy by the Bush administration.

As Colin Powell said during his visit with departing Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing, the United States does not see China “as an inevitable foe,?believes in the one-China policy and will follow the communiques and other obligations with regard to China, as well as the obligations to meet the “defence needs of Taiwan.?

As to the Taiwan question, the most important and the most sensitive one in Sino-US relations, both sides are well aware of each other’s basic stance and bottom line. Therefore, in the near future, the US Government is unlikely to make substantive changes to its mainland-Taiwan policy.

Considering American public opinion, we can infer that the United States will continue its arms sales to Taiwan, but it will also adhere to the one-China principle.

The American public’s opposition to the US?defending Taiwan with armed forces will constrain the US Government in its decision-making.

Keeping the status quo across the Taiwan Straits is most advantageous to the United States in that it entails no risk for the United States. This may not only keep the US out of a possible military conflict with the Chinese mainland, but also holds the mainland in check. It can be predicted that US arms sales to Taiwan will be a major point in disputes between the two countries.

The United States will continue to make use of the “human rights?issue to put pressure on China.

One of the pillars of the US post-Cold-War global strategy is to promote American “democracy,?which includes human rights. This means that US interference in the internal affairs of other countries under the pretext of human rights has considerable public support, and vice versa, a foreign policy that ignores human rights will lose public support.

The polls show that most Americans want the government to take a strong stand against China on human rights issues, even at the expense of certain economic interests. The American public is also highly prejudiced against China, regarding China as a country without human rights and fails to see the efforts and progress the Chinese Government has made in matters of human rights. This is partly due to the biased and unfavourable reports on China by the US media. Therefore, the human rights issue will remain a point of conflict between the two countries.

China and the United States have diametrically opposed strategies ?maintaining hegemony vs opposing hegemony. This means that there are bound to be disagreements and conflicts between the two countries, which may lead to crises.

However, the two countries also share common interests. Furthermore, the international situation makes it impossible for the United States to isolate China or impose a comprehensive containment policy against China in a Cold War fashion. Therefore, the two countries have areas in which they can co-operate. Sino-US relations will develop along a rough road of co-operation and conflict. (By Mei Renyi and Li Qikeng

(Mei Renyi is a professor and director of the American Studies Programme and in the English Department at Beijing Foreign Studies University; Li Qikeng is an associate professor with Jiangxi Finance & Economics University, and a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Programme at Beijing Foreign Studies University. )

(China Daily 06/26/2001)

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