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Bush to Asia: Freedom Is More Than Markets

Increased power: China's economy is burgeoning -- as is its military strength.
Increased power: China's economy is burgeoning -- as is its military strength. (Consumers Carrying Shopping Bags In Beijing This Month/by Jason Lee -- Reuters)

Before proponents of the Bush Doctrine break open the champagne, however, they must note a fundamental contradiction in Bush's approach that may derail the new tactics. It lies in the conflict between the Bush Doctrine's rhetoric and what one might call the theory of "democratic inevitability." In a nutshell, this theory asserts that economic liberalization in China will pave the way to political liberalization.

Born of economists and beloved by foreign policy bureaucrats, this theory has been a major element in American thinking about China, more so in recent years. Indeed, Bush revealed that he is of two minds on China's strategic direction when, against the backdrop of the counterbalancing policy he is putting in place, he asserted in Japan that "as China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed."

The most appealing aspect of the theory of democratic inevitability is that it absolves the United States of having to do anything unpleasant that would complicate relations with the ruling clique in Beijing. It also breeds bureaucratic complacency. If economic liberalization is leading to democracy in China, then there's no need to worry about China's growing economic, diplomatic and military power. China's rise can be seen as benign, part of a march to freedom rather than a march on Washington and its allies. In the face of a rising challenge, it's always easier to do nothing.

But that vision represents a triumph of hope over experience. By most measures, China is less open and democratic than it was before it crushed pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Reports from organizations such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch as well as the State Department and congressional commissions provide ample evidence of the resilience of authoritarianism and the persistence of repression in China.

A "hedging" strategy -- embracing and balancing two contradictory views of China's rise -- is also hard to sustain over time. If China's not an enemy, why arm ourselves and bolster alliances against it? If it is an enemy, why are we trading so promiscuously with it?

If the competition between China and the United States turns to confrontation, for example over Taiwan or over the intensifying Sino-Japanese rivalry over natural resources in the Sea of Japan, the American public and America's allies will be ill-prepared for sterner action that the United States will have to take.

The shoring up of our alliances along China's periphery indicates that the Bush administration isn't willing to hitch its Asia strategy to a hope. And if its steps are still tentative, at least the administration (partly at the prodding of such allies as Japan) is asking the right questions: What if China is not democratizing while it becomes more powerful? What if China is "biding its time" -- as Deng Xiaoping instructed it to do -- until the day it can more directly confront the United States?

The Pentagon's restructuring in Asia and the president's trip imply that the administration can be quite sober about what China's rise really means. Make no mistake, the competition already underway with Beijing is critical: America has a vital interest in sustaining its place as the guarantor of Asia's security. Its leadership has led to the region's peace and prosperity. And still there is more at stake. China is an increasingly important player in the Middle East and indeed globally. Ultimately, if the Bush Doctrine is not successfully applied to East Asia, and China can export its bad behavior to the Middle East, the strategy of promoting democracy will fail there, too.

Authors' e-mails:

dblumenthal@aei.org; tdonnelly@aei.org

Dan Blumenthal and Tom Donnelly are resident fellows at the American Enterprise Institute.


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