Thirty Years of Engaging China

Condoleezza Rice will be going to China this month to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. Instead of celebrating what has occurred these three decades, she should be assessing whether our China policies, formulated in the 1970s, still make sense.

First, we need some historical background. President Nixon went to Beijing in 1972 to enlist the Chinese in the global struggle against the Soviet Union. If there was time for a cynical bargain with a totalitarian state, it was at that moment, when it looked as if we were losing to the Kremlin. Yet, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Soviet threat largely disappeared, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved on Christmas Day 1991.

The end of the Cold War largely removed the reason for the engagement of China, but there was no reevaluation of policy. And for a time, there appeared to be no need for one as Beijing started to move in positive directions. Deng Xiaoping, who assumed power two years after the passing of Mao Zedong, had reoriented China's foreign policy. No longer did Beijing try to export communist revolution. Deng wanted China to keep a low profile. With a few regrettable exceptions -- like the failed 1979 invasion of Vietnam -- Beijing adhered to the buzz phrase of the time: "seek cooperation and avoid confrontation."

Cooperation and the avoidance of confrontation were, of course, necessary to permit Deng to start the rebuilding China, then devastated by Mao's periodic episodes of lunacy -- such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution -- and scarred by his version of totalitarian economics, dominated by a central bureaucracy overseeing collectivized farms and managing state-owned enterprises. It is no coincidence that the 30th anniversary of the start of economic reform in China was celebrated in the middle of December and that the 30th anniversary of relations with America will be marked just a few weeks later.

Deng's new approach to other nations survived his passing in 1997. Jiang Zemin, his hand-picked successor, generally adhered to the new outlook. Even though Jiang's "big country" diplomacy sought recognition for China's growing status, he saw his nation working with Washington and its allies in a Congress of Vienna-like context.