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Unhelpful China

By Dan Blumenthal
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A21

In contrast to its rejection of traditional U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has largely embraced the traditional approach to the People's Republic of China, the one it inherited from its predecessors. This policy, known as "engagement," is predicated on the belief that as Beijing grows more confident and influential on the global stage, it will act in ways that advance common Sino-American interests. But as China's behavior on key U.S. policies makes clear, while Beijing may speak the language of cooperation, it acts like a strategic competitor.

Consider China's interference in the delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran. The United States and the European Union have taken a "good cop, bad cop" approach to quashing Tehran's nuclear ambitions: The European Union has been offering economic inducements, while the United States has been threatening to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

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China, meanwhile, has worked to undermine both the U.S. stick and the E.U. carrot. During the final stages of E.U.-Iranian negotiations in early November, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing flew to Tehran and announced that China would oppose any effort to haul the Iranian nuclear program before the United Nations.

Li no doubt wanted to secure the multibillion-dollar oil and gas agreement that China had just signed with the mullahs. The deal is reflective of burgeoning Sino-Iranian trade, which increased more than 50 percent last year and has undercut the impact of whatever incentives or sanctions the West might attempt to link to Tehran's disarmament.

A similar calculus of strategic and economic interests has guided China's policy toward Sudan, where Beijing also has extensive energy investments and, not coincidentally, continues to shield Khartoum from U.N. sanctions for its ongoing campaign of violence against the people of Darfur.

In both cases China has demonstrated that it is a more confident global actor, but, contrary to engagement theory, it has used this newfound strength -- and its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- to frustrate U.S.-European objectives.

The spirit of obstructionism rules even in the case of North Korea. By any rational measure, the elimination of Kim Jong Il's nuclear arsenal should be a shared Sino-U.S. interest. Instead, Beijing acts as if the United States and North Korea are equally to blame for the standoff. Styling itself an "honest broker," the Chinese leadership has taken to calling for both sides to be "more flexible." And, when North Korean parliamentary head Kim Yong Nam visited Beijing in October, President Hu Jintao vowed to "enhance bilateral cooperation and coordination in regional and international affairs."

On Taiwan as well, Beijing is using its growing confidence and power to achieve ends at odds with U.S. interests. Washington has long insisted that it does not take a position on the final status of Taiwan -- independence, unification with China or some other arrangement to which the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait provide their assent. As muddled as this policy may sometimes be, one component has always been clear: The issue must be decided peacefully.

But it increasingly appears that Beijing does not believe in a peaceful resolution. Indeed, the only resolution that would satisfy China is to absorb Taiwan. Beijing is putting great effort and resources into a military buildup with one main goal in mind: coercing Taiwan into accepting unification on China's terms and deterring the United States from keeping its commitment to defend the island democracy.

From Tehran to Taipei, it is past time for U.S. policymakers to recognize that the traditional engagement policy with Beijing -- originally derived from the shared Sino-American interest during the Cold War in containing the Soviet Union -- has become a dangerous anachronism. The policy cedes all initiative to Beijing, which can always threaten worse behavior. Consequently, when China sets back transatlantic efforts to turn the screws on Iran, the United States looks the other way. On North Korea, Beijing earns plaudits in Washington even as it refuses to put any real pressure on Pyongyang. And, on Taiwan, Washington responds to Beijing's intensifying diplomatic pressure -- backed by real and growing military power -- by putting heat on the island's democratically elected leader.

An honest look at Sino-American relations reveals that it is precisely when the United States is not overly solicitous of Beijing that China acts in greater harmony with U.S. interests. It was after decisive U.S. action in Iraq that China pressured North Korea to the negotiating table. Similarly, Chinese flexibility on Taiwan has usually followed breakthroughs in arms sales to Taiwan.

Whether in the case of nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, peace in the Taiwan Strait or human rights abuses in Darfur, U.S. interests will not be advanced by an engagement policy with Beijing that values the atmospherics of a good relationship above all else. A second Bush administration needs to develop a coherent approach to China that accounts for new strategic realities -- with the same iconoclastic spirit that guides its foreign policy elsewhere in the world.

The writer, a resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was until recently the senior country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He will take questions at 1:30 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company