A New Approach to All of Asia

In this installment of the New York Times' Campaign Stops blog's Foreign Policy Watch, Thomas Donnelly discusses the presidential candidates' silence on China during the Olympics.

Thomas Donnelly
Resident Fellow
Thomas Donnelly
The Beijing Olympics seem like they happened years ago. But before the Games are ancient history, let me draw attention to Sophie Richardson, a director of Asia advocacy for Human Rights Watch, who recently lamented that "not a single world leader who attended the Games or members of the International Olympic Committee seized the opportunity to challenge the Chinese government's behavior in any meaningful way."

That may be slightly unfair to President Bush, who at least exceeded expectations in a speech he gave in Thailand as he made his way to Beijing. But it does accurately capture the silence of the McCain and Obama campaigns.

It's true that both candidates were diverted, as was the world, by the Russian invasion of Georgia and by party conventions and vice presidential picks. But it would be nice if the men auditioning to be the leader of the free world could come up with something insightful to say about China's rise. If there's any single aspect of United States foreign policy that demands "reform," it is American policy toward China, which hasn't changed much since 1972.

An alliance of democracies might be the framework for security cooperation in Asia, but the shared concern over China's growing military power would be the purpose.

Past attempts to formulate new policies and strategies have failed miserably. In 1992, Bill Clinton excoriated George H.W. Bush for kowtowing to the "butchers of Beijing" after the Tiananmen Square massacre. George W. Bush views China as a "strategic competitor" rather than the "strategic partner" that the Clinton Administration hoped for when it bestowed permanent most-favored-nation trading status on the country. The current Polonius-like policy of "hedging" acknowledges the realities of trade ties and geopolitical competition, but does not solve the puzzle or even prioritize United States interests. It simply kicks the can down the road.

Thus the conventional wisdom is no consolation to either candidate. They need to think this through themselves. On the other hand, it's an opportunity: indeed, whoever can define a coherent China policy, more than deserves to be president.

For Barack Obama, this means getting beyond the world-standing-together gauziness of his Berlin speech. On too many issues--Darfur, North Korean and Iran nuclear programs, Zimbabwe, Venezuela--China's made it clear that it does not stand with the United States. And China's been notably quiet on the Russian occupation of Georgia. That's not acceptable from a country that's supposed to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. (Indeed, Beijing is probably wondering whether a "Georgia precedent" might be applied to its desire to annex Taiwan.)

John McCain might be slightly farther down the road toward an innovative China policy, particularly with his idea of a "league of democracies." American strategy in East Asia has long been handicapped by an excessive bilateralism; with the exception of the Vietnam-era "Southeast Asia Treaty Organization," we have preferred to build regional security in a country-by-country, retail fashion. However, the rise of China calls for a more integrated, wholesale approach: if we don't find ways for the region's democracies to hang together we make it more likely that they'll hang alone.

Getting the region together won't be easy. To take the clearest examples, Japan and South Korea are close American allies, deeply committed to democracy, but made wary by centuries of mutual hostility. An alliance of democracies might be the framework for security cooperation, but the shared concern over China's growing military power would be the purpose. Indeed, the value of Mr. McCain's plan is undercut by being too coy about China

Pushing the candidates on the issue of China's rise ought to be a focus of future presidential debates. China's status as a great power is perhaps the central question of 21st-century international affairs, arguably more important than Islamic extremism, Russian revanchism or nuclear proliferation. And China's role is inseparable from those other issues.

Thomas Donnelly is the resident fellow at AEI.

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