US-China Relations Under the Clinton Administration: Comprehensive Engagement or the Cold War Again?

P.M. Kamath,Honorary Director,VPM CIS


The greatest event billed in the first half of 1998 for the Sino-US relations is Bill Clinton's state visit to Beijing towards the end of June.* Already many American officials have visited Beijing to plan for the proposed visit by the President. On April 30, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright was in Beijing to hold high level meetings with the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin. The US policy makers are on the horns of a dilemma. In simplistic terms, the dilemma is : the US economic interests demand a continued improvement in the bilateral relations while the political establishment demands a strong US stance on China's human rights performance.

Madeleine Albright has reportedly told Jiang Zemin about the US concerns for the need to improve the Chinese human rights track record. In anticipation of the US pressure, China had released a well known pro-democracy student leader, Wang Dan, a few days prior to Secretary of State Albright's visit. Only last November, China had also released another dissident leader, Wei Jing-sheng. President Bill Clinton, through a letter also asked the Chinese leadership to respect religious freedom, particularly in Tibet, and also urged China to initiate a dialogue with the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama

The Secretary of State stated at a Press conference : "I raised our concerns quite directly about religious freedom in Tibet, the right to free and peaceful expression of political views, and the still large number of Chinese prisoners of conscience." She also said that she had "quite lengthy and intensive discussions on Tibet as an issue that is of great importance to us. We have believed that it's very important for there to be preservation of the cultural and religious special character of Tibet."1

What is the nature and status of present US-China relations? What could be the likely nature of the relations between the two countries before the term of Bill Clinton ends in January 2001? This paper proposes to answer these two questions in the light of the historical background of their bilateral relations since Richard Nixon's normalisation of US-China relations in 1972. However, emphasis will be on the contemporary period characterised as "Comprehensive Engagement" by President Bill Clinton. It will also discuss the possibilities of the development of a Cold War between the two powers. It will be of interest to all nations of Asia; as such, Indian policy-makers cannot escape the immediate impact of a US-China Cold War.

Historical Background

China was made an acceptable player in international relations by the US under the geo-political and geo-strategic policies pursued by Richard Nixon and ably implemented by his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. US-China relations can best be examined under three phases. First, the period of normalisation of relations from the time of Nixon's historic visit in February 1972 till Carter's restoration of diplomatic relations in December 1978. The second phase of consolidation includes the period from 1979 to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The third phase is the contemporary period from 1991.

Nixon's policy towards normalisation of relations with China was mainly propelled by three inter-related compulsions. First, he had come to office by promising to end the Vietnam War with honour. But he had realised right from the beginning that he could not achieve his goal without the active support of both the Soviet Union and China.

Second, unlike the Johnson Administration2 that preceded him, Nixon clearly realised the fact that the schism between the Soviet Union and China was so deep that monolithic Communism was no longer a reality. Hence, the shrewd strategician that he was, he rightly thought that he could use their own differences and conflicts to enhance the US power in the game of global balance of power, since China then considered the Soviet Union as its number one enemy after their Ussuri river conflict.

Third, the US, as a militarily and economically declining power, was looking towards China not only as a helpful balancer against the Soviet Union—then perceived by the US policy makers as a state that had achieved parity if not superiority of power vis-a-vis the US—but also as a potential market for increased economic relations. Thus, there was triangular balance of power or what Brzezinski, who later bacame President Carter's National Security Advisor, called the "2-1\2+y+z powers world."3

From Normalisation to the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations

In the first phase, US-China relations were mainly confined to external aspects and restricted to their geo-strategic concerns. It was only after Jimmy Carter extended diplomatic relations, that the political, military and economic contents were increasingly added in their bilateral relations along with the existing geo-strategic concerns. However, relations were never a smooth upward move. There were many occasions when a slide down occurred or was anticipated. Thus, for instance, after Ronald Reagan assumed office, his natural preference for Taiwan in contrast to a Communist China was indicated by his numerous election campaign utterances. It became a flash point for a sharp deterioration in US-China relations. The Reagan Administration could restore normalcy in relations only through the August 1982 communique on limiting arms sales to Taiwan.4

The communique of 1982 assured China of the US intentions not to sell weapons to Taiwan. More positively, the US and China developed identity of views and goals vis-à-vis the Soviet actions in the Third World. For instance, on the question of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and demanding the withdrawal of the Soviet armed forces, the two nations collaborated actively. China made the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan one of the pre-conditions for their improved relations.

But the major setback in US-China relations occurred on June 4, 1989, when the Chinese Army massacred more than 2,200 unarmed, innocent, pro-democracy student protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Since the protection of human rights had become a favourite issue with the US Congress, George Bush promptly imposed certain selective sanctions against China. Thus, military sales of $500 million worth advanced avionics for 50 of China's F8 fighters proposed to be sold in 1985 were suspended. Similarly, high level contacts between officials of the two countries were discontinued. The US also ended support for China in international financial institutions.

However, the Bush Administration tempered the negative sanctions on China by positive references to China's importance to the US and world peace. In December 1989, President George Bush also sent his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret visit to Beijing to reassure the Chinese leaders as to the limited intentions of the US in their public diplomacy.5

But once the Gulf War began in early 1991, as a consequence of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, China fully cooperated with the US in the UN Security Council (SC) decision making. Even where China did not agree with certain US policy perceptions, it abstained rather than using its veto power on behalf of the Third World country. It was only with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991, that China ceased to be important to the US from its strategic perspective. In fact, the triangular balance of power became irrelevant.

Even before the formal end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the emerging thaw in superpower relations was evident during the Gulf War when the Soviet Union and China both collaborated with the US in the conduct of war.

From Geo-Politics to Geo-Economics: Post-Cold War Phase

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it was President Bush who set the tone for the post-Cold War relations with China. President Bush continued to insist upon the compliance to human rights by China.

But the main thrust of the policy of the Bush Administration was one of increasing economic and security cooperation between the two states which was described by the Administration as the policy of engagement. But it continued to emphasise human rights. Thus, for instance, China's exporting the products of prison labour became an important issue Export items like hand tools, elephant brand and golden double horse brand socks were alleged to have been made by prison labour.6

Similarly, China was also involved in the sale of M-11 missiles to Pakistan in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The US insisted that China adhere to the MTCR regulations which prohibited export of any missile technology or assembled missiles capable of carrying a pay load of 300 kg and with a range of 500 km at a given time or with inherent capability which could be used later. China considered them as conventional missiles, while the US did not accept their present status but focussed on future capabilities. This is clear from the statement of the Chinese Ambassador in Washington in June 1991 that China had sold some conventional weapons to Pakistan including a tiny amount of short range tactical missiles. "I think, here you call it M-11."

In June 1991, the US imposed sanctions, limited to two Chinese weapons' companies. However, the US always has been interested in keeping the lines of communication open with China and in pursuance of the this policy, James Baker, the Secretary of State, went to Beijing to hold talks with the Chinese leaders. In these talks, Baker insisted that China adhere to the MTCR.7 While the Chinese leaders wanted the US first to lift the sanctions, before China could decide to adhere to the MTCR. The US was also keen that China agree to respect various other non-proliferation regimes like the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, the Chinese were not willing to agree to accept American conditionalities under the threat of sanctions. Hence, the US lifted sanctions on December 20. The Chinese People's Congress voted to sign the NPT on December 29. The two have always tried to play the game of one up-manship: the Chinese formally acceded to the NPT on March 9, 1992, while the US effectively lifted the sanctions on March 23.

Clinton in the White House: Comprehensive Engagement

During the election of 1992, Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate had been very critical of the Bush Administration's China policy. He had even accused President Bush of "coddling of dictators of Beijing." This could stick on Bush, as he had very wide contacts in the Chinese Administration—he had been the US' informal Ambassador in Beijing after Nixon normalised relations with China.

As such, Clinton had to coin something new to indicate his policy approach to China in contradistinction to the Bush Administation. But the end product of Clintonian thinking was no different from that of the earlier Bush policy; though Clinton called it "comprehensive engagement." The American scholars have described it differently as "intensive engagement" or "expansive engagement." But the Clinton Administration has consistently avoided using the phrase, "constructive engagement," because it was first used by Reagan in relation to South Africa.

What are the main purposes of the policy of comprehensive engagement? Clinton's China man, during his first Administration, Assistant Secretary of State, Winston Lord, unfolded before the Senate Sub-committee on Asia and Pacific Affairs on March 8, 1995, three purposes. First, to pursue all of the US interests at the appropriate levels and with appropriate intensity required; second, to seek to build mutual confidence and agreement in areas where US interests converge with those of China; and third, through dialogue, reduce the areas in which the interests of the two diverge.8

These purposes are in effect no different from those of the Bush Administration. It will become clear through our discussion in the subsequent pages on two issues where there was a greater convergence of bilateral interests between the two states and three issues on which there has been a greater divergence in their interests.

Trade and Human Rights

The major issue faced by the Clinton Administration in the first two years since its inauguration in January 1993, was renewal of the most favoured nation (MFN) treatment. The problems, compulsions and options involved here were not much different from those of the Bush Administration. Though US trade with China constitutes only 2 percent of its total foreign trade, it is important as it involved at least preserving 18,000 American jobs. China also had greater interest in renewing MFN status as its trade with the US constitutes 25 percent of its total foreign trade. There were also US business lobbies working to see that MFN status was renewed without much hassle.

The issue came up for decision soon after the Clinton Administration was inaugurated. There was, of course, pressure from the human rights groups also to use trade as a lever to secure on the part of the Chinese government greater respect for human rights as Clinton as a candidate in the elections of 1992 had supported the efforts of a Democrats-controlled controlled Congress to link China's MFN status with its human rights policies.9

Ultimately, Clinton renewed the MFN status by linking its renewal in 1994 to China's performance on the front of respect for human rights. Congressmen emphasised different aspects of China's performance on protection of human rights. If some wanted the religious rights of Tibetans to be protected, some desired that humane treatment be given to political prisoners in China; others wanted to ensure that products of prison labour were not exported to the US. Thus, Congress asked the Secretary of State to report on the progress made on the human rights front and renewal of the MFN status was subject to his giving a report on "significant progress" achieved by China. Thus, the Administration could not renew the MFN the next year automatically or unconditionally.

On May 26, 1994, however, despite the poor human rights record of China, the Clinton Administation decided to delink human rights improvement and trade relations. This was a major change in the US policy, because earlier the Administration had "favoured the use of economic leverage to promote democratic ideals in China."10 Now, Bill Clinton preferred to reap the benefits from the China trade rather than sacrifice it on the altar for promotion of human rights in China. The Administration has argued that keeping trade channels open helps to transmit US ideas on human rights into the Chinese society. This was ironic, particularly in the light of Clinton's accusation of Bush's support to the Chinese dictatorship. This also created a growing rift between the human rights lobbies and business lobbies interested in China.

By 1995, the Clinton Administration began to state that human rights is not the only factor determining foreign policy. There was, obviously, pressure from the business groups in favour of continuation of MFN. The human rights lobbies, of course, felt let down by the Clinton Administration. In general, human rights lobbies feel that the Clinton Administration raises human rights issues with the Chinese leaders only with a view to keep the domestic lobbies happy. But the US, of course, has not given up the issue of human rights altogether, as is evident from the fact that the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, during her visit to Beijing did seek China's ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights before the June summit.11

Since 1994, with the delinking of trade from human rights, trade has increased manifold. It is indicated by the fact that China's surplus trade with the US was $23 billion in 1993 which rose to $29.5 in 1994 only to climb further to $40 billion in 1995. These figures are disputed by China. The Chinese say that even before Hong Kong came under the Chinese sovereignty, the Americans had added the foreign trade of Hong Kong in China's list. On the other hand, the Americans have pointed out that Chinese products were sent through Hong Kong to enhance Chinese exports.

This itself raises new problems between the two countries. Since the US trade with China has not grown at the speed at which China's trade has grown, the US has been pressurising China to open up its market further for US exports. If this fails, human rights become handy for the US to pursue its aim. Thus, for instance, prison convicts' labour products, as alleged by the US, are being exported to the US. However, the former US Ambassador to China, James Lilley, finds the practice not very uncommon; it is practised by South Korea and even the US exports similar prison products.12

There are other economic issues, like the US allegation of China violating intellectual property rights (IPR), particularly in music systems. The US puts its annual loss through piracy of CDs annually at $1 billion. China has been promising to improve its protection record on IPR. China's main concern now is joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but the US not only has reservations on supporting China's admission to the WTO on the ground of poor track record on protecting IPR, but it also demands greater "transparency" in trade practices in China. In reality, the Clinton Administration is using it as a lever to obtain greater economic and political concessions from China. Often a frustrated US feels that China does not believe in persuasion; it can be made to understand only the language of sanctions.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

In the 1990s, there has been, on the whole, a greater convergence of interests between the two nations over many nuclear non-proliferation issues. Not only has China accepted international regimes like the NPT and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but it has also cooperated with the US on crucial issues like the North Korean alleged violation of the NPT, when it announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT regime. Over the issue, the two cooperated as neither the US, nor China want to see North Korea go nuclear. The US interest is global: achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation goal. But China's concerns are purely national. It does not wish to have a nuclear power on its borders. On this issue, the US was confident that if North Korea had not cooperated with the US on the non-proliferation goal, China would have cooperated with the US in using other "alternative measures" to secure North Korean compliance to US will.13 Though China's opening diplomatic relations with South Korea was not liked by the North Korean regime, it could not have resisted China as it depends heavily on it for its oil and food supply. China also cooperated with the US on renewing the NPT indefinitely in 1995.14

The US and China also cooperated over the question of placing the CTBT on the statute book. This was done, of course, mainly on China's own terms. The US was so keen to secure China's adherence to the CTBT that it went to the extent of offering a computer simulation device to test nuclear weapons to China in return for its compliance. China was, till the last minute, very keen to retain its right to conduct peaceful nuclear explosions. However, after its successfully conducted 39th and 40th tests, it agreed to sign the CTBT. But it was one of the three who insisted on Clause 14, of forcing India to sign before the treaty is implemented.

While China cooperated with the US, it did not do so by sacrificing its interests. In 1993, once again there was the conflict between the two over the question of China supplying M-11 missiles to Pakistan by violating its earlier promise made to Secretary of State James Baker to stick to the MTCR. In July 1993, Department of State official, Lynn Davis went to Beijing to discuss the matter, but the Chinese were not even willing to receive him and discuss the issue.15

The State Department in August 1993 imposed limited sanctions reluctantly. But subsequently, Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Beijing and agreed to lift sanctions in August 1994. During the October 1994 visit of the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian, the Chinese agreed to adhere to the MTCR, but on their terms once again. As Qian put it, "We reached agreement on this issue [of adhering to the MTCR] that is, after the lifting of the sanctions imposed on China by the United States in August 1993, China reaffirms its commitment to MTCR guidelines and parameters."16

The M-11 controvery continued to dog Sino-US relations, but China does what is in its national interest. Thus, again since 1996, there were reports of China supplying spares and building a factory in Pakistan to assemble and turn out missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. US Senators like Joseph Biden and others, after their visit to China in 1997, have categorically stated this. Of course, the charge has been denied by China as well as Pakistan.

China, of course, has not consistently cooperated with the US in the area of non-proliferation. Though China has promised many a times to the US to adhere to the MTCR, it has refused to formally join the regime. On the other hand, recently, in May 1998, it stated that it cannot formally join the MTCR regime as it has certain commitments.

The US wants, in the next three years, the placing on the statute book of a treaty to cut off production of nuclear fissile material as a priority. The US officials appearing before the Congressional Committees have testified that China has agreed "to cooperate on establishing an international convention to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes."17 However, in this respect also, China is likely to cooperate with the US on its own terms.

Issues of Divergence

While generally there is a convergence of interests on the above issues with doors always kept open for the conflicts to enter, I take here three other issues where there is greater divergence of interests between the two, with the possibilities of occasional cooperation. They relate to their conflicting perceptions over Taiwan, Tibet and China's policy of forward projection of power. These are also the issues which could bring down the policy of "comprehensive engagement" and start the Cold War once again.


Taiwan is considered by China as a renegade province. The US has severed its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and accepted the theory of one China. However, the US has insisted that reunification of Taiwan with mainland China must come about only by peaceful means. This is very clear in the three communiques (of 1972, 1978 and 1982 respectively) so far issued by the two countries. But China increasingly perceives the US as going back on its commitment to one China and promoting the "one people, two governments" theory.

The flash point in US-China relations over Taiwan came in June 1995 over the question of the US issuing a visa to the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui to visit the US to address his alma mater, Cornell University on June 7. Already the Clinton Administration had upgraded unofficial relations with Taiwan by permitting visits of officials of Cabinet level. Clinton had also referred to Taiwan at his meeting with Jiang Zemin in Seattle as a country. Whether it is a country or not, Taiwan is a reality.

China, at the same time, finds Taiwan's investment in the mainland too attractive to completely ignore it. As of 1996, Taiwan's investment in China is $25 billion and two-way trade has been over $20 billion. Taiwan's economic miracle makes one talk directly to China's economic czars without bothering much about the political status of Taiwan.

But China's suspicion that the US has not given up the idea of an independent Taiwan, is too strong. The US also considers Taiwan as an ally. Hence, when the Clinton Administration extended a visa to the Taiwanese President, China described it as the US "playing with fire." China recalled indefinitely its Ambassador to the US for consultations.18 Partly it was a genuine problem faced by Clinton with the Republican Party controlled Congress which has many staunch supporters of Taiwan. The Congress had passed a resolution asking the Clinton Administration to issue a visa to President Lee by an overwhelming majority in the Senate 97 to 1 and in the House by 396 to nil majority which he could not veto.

Thus, China, enraged at the US support to Taiwan, conducted military exercises very close to Taiwan to threaten it in July 1995. This was to make it clear to Taiwan that if necessary China will not rule out use of force. Later, during the March 1996 election for the Taiwanese Presidency, which for the first time was held directly, China had a deep suspicion that Taiwan might declare its independence. It held war games in the Taiwan Strait, aimed at covertly cautioning the Taiwanese against any moves towards independence.19

It justified, in retrospect, the US announcement of sale of F-16s to Taiwan during the November 1992 elections. There was a clear indication of force on the part of the US. The Clinton Administration sent naval warships to Taiwan Strait, just to remind China not to settle the dispute by the use of military force. The Chinese gamble actually failed as there was a turnout of 76.9 per cent voters and Lee won the elections decisively. The Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich and many other law makers have openly called for the admission of Taiwan as an independent country to the UN.


In the 1990s, particularly, after China ceased to be important for the US in balancing the Soviet power, the US has given considerable attention to Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The Clinton Administration is the first Administration so far to have named a separate official for coordination of Tibetan affairs. He has been assigned the task of "promoting a dialogue between Beijing and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama." He would also "seek to protect the unique religious, cultural and linguistic heritage of Tibet."20

Chinese leaders naturally resent the American interest in the Tibetan affairs, which they consider as interference in their internal affairs. The Chinese have unleashed a vicious campaign against the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama. He has been described as a follower of Nazis as his mathematics teacher was a Nazi. The Beijing Review portrayed the Dalai Lama also as a fascist disciple of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, who taught the young spiritual leader in the 1940s.21

China's strongman, Jiang Zemin, has personally given a lead in heaping abuse on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. During his state visit to Washington, in October 1947, he stated that the Tibetans had no culture. Addressing six non-governmental organisations (where no questions from the audience were permitted), Jiang Zemin said: "Beijing liberated Tibetans from serfdom bordering on slavery and put them on the path of freedom and prosperity."22

But the Tibetans apparently are not happy with their liberation. Already 1.6 million Tibetans have lost their lives resisting Chinese "re-education" of Tibetans. In effect, it involves making the monks in the monasteries and children in the schools renounce the Dalai Lama, and swear by the Chinese motherland.23 While the Americans have expressed their concern for religious freedom for the Tibetans, the newly elected National People's Conference (NPC) in their meeting in March 1998, emphasised the need for continued re-education of Tibetans. This is because, according to the Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama is practising "splittism", meaning he aims to split Tibet from mainland China.24

Forward Projection of Power

After the experience of the Gulf War, China had come to emphasise small scale high-tech war. Jiang Zemin, addressing the Central Military Commission in 1993 said: "We must win high-tech, small scale wars under modern conditions."25 For this, China since 1993, has adopted a doctrine of forward projection of power. For this purpose it has launched a programme of modernising its armed forces by spending every year at least two percent more of the Gross National Product (GNP) on the armed forces. It has negotiated many deals with the Russians for the supply of military hardware and several hundred Russian scientists are working in developing submarines. In the post-Cold War period, China generally considers Russia as a possible strategic friend.

It has test-fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called Dong Feng (East Wing) with a range of 8,000 km, capable of carrying 12 warheads which can hit any city on the west coast of the US. In the nuclear field when the trend has been towards reduction of nuclear weapons and prevention of nuclear tests, China has not only conducted tests but has continuously aimed to perfect and miniaturise the nuclear weapons. It has taken a no-nonsense approach to the US proposed CTBT. While it agreed to it in principle, it continued to test, stating that it will cease tests after the treaty is opened up for signing. In the CTBT negotiations, it made a hard bargain with the US. At one stage, US Secretary of Defence William Perry promised a computer simulation testing device to China, in return for its agreeing to sign the CTBT. China had, till the last, insisted on keeping the option for Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE) open; but at the last minute, China agreed to forgo the right. It is probable that the US must have agreed to provide what they promised.

The Chinese have turned their Navy into a blue water one and increased its presence in the Indian Ocean. When a correspondent asked the Chinese Defence Minister about their naval activities in the Indian Ocean, he quipped that it is the Indian Ocean and not India's Ocean. China has also acquired naval and electronic surveillance facilities in the Coco Islands on the southernmost tip of Myanmar.

However, a major indication of its thrust of power to achieve foreign policy goals is evident in its behaviour in the South China Sea. It has already occupied the Paracel Islands close to Vietnam, claiming Chinese sovereignty over it. It has also claimed the entire stretch of islands called the Spratly Islands. It passed a territorial waters law in 1992, formally declaring its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea area. This demonstrates a 19th century mentality of thinking that power is exclusively dependent on the possession of territory.26

These islands are rich in oil and minerals. Experts have estimated that the South China Sea could become another Persian Gulf with 35 billion tons of oil and gas deposits. China has already awarded an oil exploration contract to an American company called Crestone, though this particular island is within the territorial waters of Vietnam. As a matter of fact, most of the islands including the Spratlys are closer to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia rather than to China. If these claims of China are accepted, the Chinese territorial jurisdiction will increase by 2.5 million sq. km; consequently, its maritime jurisdiction will increase from the present 370 sq. km. to 3 million sq. km making it a crucially important power affecting the sea lanes in the entire Indian Ocean.27

China's blatant neglect of international law is also seen from the fact that it is putting forward a proposal to Asian countries claiming these islands for their co-development, a Chinese word for joint development. It, in effect, amounts to a policy of fixing the flag in a territory that does not belong to you, then with the show of force, asking the legitimate owner to share the fruits of development with the aggressor on the territory. China's worry is, even if it captures the South China Sea islands, can it keep them? China will not be able to maintain control over them until it acquires an aircraft carrier and develops a blue water Navy.28

The US had already made it clear to China that it would like it to abide by international law and the laws of the sea in particular. The US is particularly interested in maintaining the sea lanes of trade in orderly conditions without any conflicts, and this could lead to tensions between the two nations

The policy of comprehensive engagement, as the aforesaid discussion would show, is another name for the Bush policy of engagement or Nixon's policy of détente which also tried to enhance the areas of co-operation while trying to reduce the areas of conflict on issues where the two held divergent views. As during the period of détente, or during the period of engagement under George Bush, there have been also high level meetings between Clinton and Jiang Zemin: they first met on November 19, 1993, at Seattle during a summit meeting of leaders from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and again at a working level summit in New York Public Library in 1995. As a matter of fact, China wanted the 1995 meeting to be a state visit to Washington, DC with a state dinner and a 21-gun salute. It was, however, arranged in October 1997. Now, Bill Clinton's is a return state visit first the US head of the state to visit China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. Is it a coincidence, or is there a message in the month chosen to visit China?

In general, it is accurate to say that the US has ben very sensitive to Chinese susceptibilities on bilateral issues. Whenever some tensions have developed, US officials have run to Beijing to pacify the Chinese leaders. US policy was explained by Winston Lord in the following terms: "We are pursuing a policy that reflects China's status as a major power, and pay due regard to Chinese sensitivities. In return, we expect China to pay due regard to our needs and take seriously the President's determination to achieve real progress on human rights and other issues."29

Cold War Again

Thus, the question is : since the US-Soviet Cold War has ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, will similar cooperative relations continue to exist between the US and China as well? In other words, will comprehensive engagement be a policy for the future or will the Cold War emerge again between the two? There is no assurance that the Cold War between the two—the US and China—has totally ended, as in the case of the US and Russia. The possibilities of another Cold War emerging between the US and China cannot be ruled out. The current indications are demonstrative of the fact that there are greater possibilities of a Cold War developing between the two.

This conclusion is based on several important perceptions. First, China possesses a self-perception as a major power and as an emerging superpower. In this sense, it sees a threat to its ambitions only from the US. It sees Russia as a friend. Ross H. Munro, a China watcher, refers to an anonymous pamphlet in the Chinese language entitled "Can China's Armed Forces Win the Next War?" published in 1993. It views the US as China's principal adversary for the decades to come.30

China recognises the US as a superior power and would like to avoid a conflict with it. However, there are many compelling factors due to which, despite best efforts by both sides, a Cold War may become inevitable. China sees itself as a developing superpower and it sees the US as aiming to militarily weaken and contain its growing power. In this, China alleges that the US is using Japan as indicated by the US-Japan plans to deploy 100,000 US troops in East Asia in the next century. China alleges that Japan is the northern anchor and Australia is the southern anchor of the US diplomatic, economic and military cordon sanitaire around China. China's dilemma is that it is convinced that the US is aiming to contain China, in addition to the use of the Taiwan and Tibet cards to contain China. On the other hand, China is also convinced of the need for American presence in the East and South-East Asia to maintain regional stability and to maintain thriving economic relations with Japan and Korea.

Second, China cannot tolerate US support to Taiwan or US interference in the Tibetan affairs. It suspects that the US is encouraging Taiwan to move towards independence. This is aided by the US giving a visa to the Chinese President to visit the US. The trend towards independence is likely to become greater as the Taiwan-born population increases in the island. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has also made independence of Taiwan, a major issue in its election manifesto. It has increased its popular backing up to 20 percent in the first ever direct election of the President held in 1996. However, in the civic elections of November 1997, for the first time, the DPP, the Opposition party, won 43.32 per cent votes as against 42.12 per cent of votes won by the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT). If the DPP comes to power in the near future, the probability of Taiwan becoming independent will increase the US-China tensions. If Taiwan declares independence, China might intervene militarily.31

Taiwan as of now, has no incentive to join mainland China. Taiwanese per capita GNP is $10,600 as against Chinese per capita GNP of $2,200. The ruling class in Taiwan exercises sovereign national powers today; while as a province of China, it will be subordinated to the ruling Communist elite. Of course, the story could be different, if China itself turns democratic with multiplicity of political parties competing for political power. Until then, Beijing should find the ruling KMT as a moderate force rather than force the DPP into power by its acts of blackmail and nuclear threats.

Third, China is opposed to the hegemonistic policy of the US, as a condition for cooperation. This has been often made clear by the former Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, and President Zemin. The US imposed sanctions on China in August 1993 for supplying M-11s to Pakistan. China resents the US policy of imposing sanctions every now and then. Hence, China made the US lift the sanctions before agreeing to do business as usual. In October 1994, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher said China that agreed to adhere to the MTCR once the sanctions are lifted. More specifically, after negotiations with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian on the subject, in a joint statement, Warren Christopher stated: "As a first step, the United States will move to lift the sanctions it imposed against China in August 1993 for transferring missile parts to Pakistan. Once the sanctions are lifted, China has agreed not to export ground-to-ground missiles covered by the MTCR agreement."32

While rejecting the hegemonistic behaviour of the US, China's behaviour is no less hegemonistic. For instance, its efforts to extend its maritime jurisdiction to 3 million sq. km. by including every contested island or reef in East and South China Sea, are indicative of its hegemonistic ambitions. As a matter of fact, it makes the China Sea, a China lake. The Americans are concerned about "disputed territorial claims to the Spratly Islands" erupting into conflict. It could be a threat to regional security and could also affect vital sea lanes.33

The US also contributes to growing tensions in their bilateral relations with China. Even, theoretically, two big powers, cannot be friends as their ambitions to achieve superpower status is bound to be a cause for conflict. China's rise to superpower status also comes at a time when the US is seen as a declining military and economic power. The US at the moment, does not see a confrontation with China. But it is natural for the US to aim to contain China because it wants to maintain its status as number one and the sole superpower in world politics.

Second, the US believes that the only language a country like China understands is the language of sanctions. The Clinton Administration has stated this more than once, in the context of China's alleged violations of IPR.34 China hates this and considers it an affront to Chinese sovereignty. This has to be seen in the context of the humiliation suffered by China in the past. Mao had said in 1949: "Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insults and humiliation. We have stood up."

Third, the US has an irrepressible urge to democratise China. This is a strong urge in the US historically, as well as today. For instance, a Senator had spoken in the 1940s of lifting Shanghai and making it like Kansas. Another former China hand, Roger Sullivan, urged that Congress and the Administration should agree on a common strategic goal: "The end of the Communist rule in China."35 Warren Christopher during his confirmation hearings had opined that the American policy should be to "peacefully evolve China towards democracy." China simply hates such US efforts and considers them as attempts to humiliate it.

The Clinton Administration harps on democracy as a goal in China. Anthony Lake, Clinton's National Security Advisor, during his first term, advocated "enlargement" instead of "containment". What is to be enlarged is the "world's free community of market democracies."36 China is aware of the US pressure and its direction. Jiang Zemin said in January 1992." The more we pursue reform and the open door policy, the more we must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat. There must be no weakening of it at all." Another Chinese military strategist, Gen. Zhonyu, warned that in dealing with the US, "We must nurse our sense of vengeance, conceal our abilities and bide our time."

Hence, the question is : should the US force reforms, greater opening up of markets and democratisation on China? After all, the Chinese say their level of development is different. There is also the precedent of Korea and Taiwan, for instance, of democratisation owing to industrialisation. While conservatives use this to urge the Clinton Administration to pressurise China towards democratisation, liberals use it to urge for patience on the part of policy makers.


What lies in the future? Whether the US continues to pursue, in its relations with China, the policy of comprehensive engagement or relapses into a Cold War again, could be a toss up. Much will depend upon two factors. First, what happens after the present ageing leadership in the post-Deng era, vanishes in history? The new leadership might pay obescience to Deng but might move to liberalise politically, as Deng did in the post Mao era—he liberalised the economy after claiming to follow Mao.

Second, it will also depend upon China's behaviour in international relations in the next few years. On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. China is obliged to maintain the present structure in the British colony as it is for the next 50 years as per the treaty signed in 1984. Will this be adhered to strictly by China or will it try to submerge democratic, social and economic freedoms presently enjoyed by citizens of Hong Kong, under the Communist rule?

How long can China claim Hong Kong as Chinese territory when the Chinese in the northern provinces have a per capita income much less than that of a Chinese in Hong Kong? If China accepts and allows a different social and economic system to thrive in Hong Kong, it implies it accepts the one people, two systems theory. Naturally, China could continue to claim Taiwan as part of it but allow a third system to exist. This could further intensify the independence movement in Taiwan. The longer Taiwan continues to be independent of China, the greater are the possibilities of it eventually becoming an independent country. This will also strengthen the US pressure to concede autonomy to the Tibetan people. There is already a degree of cooperation between the Dalai Lama and Taiwan. The Dalai Lama opened in May 1998 an office in Taipei which was the outcome of his visit to Taiwan last March.37 This could immediately be a cause for Cold War tensions and conflict between the US and China.

China holds the perception that in the event of its taking any military steps to prevent independence of Taiwan or if it tries Taiwan's forcible merger with mainland China, the US may militarily intervene. The US could also see it as an opportunity to contain and weaken China which is seen by it as an expansionist power, particularly in the light of its territorial claims in the South China Sea; hence, a security threat to its interests in East and South-East Asia.



1. Times of India, May 4, 1998, Also see P.M. Kamath, "Wicked Fences," Mid-Day, May 11, 1998.

2. For details see, P.M. Kamath, Executive Privilege Versus Democratic Accountability: The Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, 1961-1968 (Atlantic Highlands, N.J. :Humanities Press, 1982), pp. 196-7.

3. "The Balance of Power Delusion," Foreign Policy, Summer 1972, pp.54-59).

4. Robert A. Manning, "Clinton and China : Beyond Human Rights, "Orbis, Spring 1994, p.194.

5. Acting Secretary, "US Action Toward China," Current Policy, no. 1247 (Washington, DC: US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, February 7, 1990.

6. "Stanching the Flow of China's Gulag Exports," Business Week, April 13, 1992, pp.51-2.

7. "Report to Congress," June 2, 1992, US Department of State Dispatch, June 8, 1992, pp.453-4.

8. Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, "Intellectual Property Rights and US-China Relations," US Department of State Dispatch, March 27, 1995, p.245.

9. Congressional Digest, August-September 1995, p198.

10. "US Relations with China," Congressional Digest, August-September 195, p193.

11. Times of India , April 23, 1998.

12. "Freedom Through Trade," Foreign Policy, Spring 1994, p.37.

13. Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, "Mid-term Review of Most-Favored-Nation Status for China," US Department of State Dispatch, March 7, 1994, p.128.

14. Secretary Christopher, "Comprehensive Engagement in US-China Relations," US Department of State Dispatch, April 24, 1995, p.354.

15. Manning, n.4, p.197.

16. Secretary Christopher, Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian, "The U.S. and China : Curbing Missile and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, US Department of State Dispatch, October 17, 1994, p.701.

17. See, for instance, Kent Wiedmann, Deputy Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, "Curent State of US-China Relations," US Department of State Dispatch, July 24, 1995, p.587.

18. See, for details, David Shambaugh, "The United States and China : A New Cold War?" Current History, September 1995, p.241.

19. Kenneth Jost, "Taiwan, China and the US.," CQ Researcher, vol.6, no.20, May 24 1996, p.459.

20. Times of India, August 7, 1997.

21. Ibid., October 6, 1997

22. Ibid., November 1, 1997.

23. The Asian Age, March 12, 1998.

24. Times of India, February 2, 1998 and The Indian Express, March 9, 1998.

25. Quoted in Ross H. Munro, "Eavesdropping on the Chinese Military: Where it Expects War—Where it Doesn't," Orbis, Summer 1994, p.360. See also Charles Horner, "Losing China Again," Commentary, April 1994.

26. Generally see Manning, n.4, p.201.

27. The Asian Age, July 27, 1996, and Jonathan Mirsky, "With China, Words and Actions are not the same," The Asian Age, September 23,1996.

28. See Munro, n.25, p.359.

29. See n.13, pp.127-8.

30. See n.28, pp.360-1.

31. Ibid., pp.357 & 364.

32. See "The US and China Curbing Missile and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation," US Department of State Dispatch, October 17, 194, p.701.

33. Secretary of Defence William Perry, "The Sino-US Relationship and its Impact on World Peace," US Department of State Dispatch, October 31, 1994, p.725.

34. "Special 301 Into China's IPR Enforcement Practices," US Department of State Dispatch, January 9, 1995, p.22. See also "Beijing's 'Blatant Piracy' Could Slash Its US Trade," Business Week, April 22, 1991, p.46.

35. Quoted in Steven I. Levine, "China and America: The Resilient Relationship," Current History, September 1992, p.242.

36. See James Lilley, "Freedom Through Trade," Foreign Policy, Spring 1994, p.38.

37. Times of India, May 5, 1998.