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Regarding China policy, President Obama may really offer change we can believe in. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s tough words about China’s manipulation of its currency may be a harbinger of change in America’s increasingly sclerotic approach to the People’s Republic.
President Obama is not part of the generation that shaped our current China policy. He was graduating high school when Washington and Beijing finalized the terms of diplomatic normalization in 1979. Much of the deal had been worked out in secret, and set Washington on a 30-year path that would subordinate concerns about Taiwan, political reform in China, unfair trading practices and even China’s military ambitions to diplomatic engagement at any cost. While the architects of China policy saw China through a Cold War prism, Mr. Obama is the first American president who came of age as the Cold War was receding. For many in Obama’s generation, the massacre of Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square is a more powerful symbol of Chinese leadership than President Nixon’s breakthrough visit to Beijing.
It may have been reasonable for Cold Warriors to overlook Washington’s many differences with Beijing when both countries were trying to contain the Soviet Union, but that rationale has obviously disappeared. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Sino-U.S. relationship has been a partnership in search of a purpose. Americans of Mr. Obama’s generation wonder why Washington looks askance at China’s poor human-rights record, intimidation of democratic Taiwan, irresponsible trade practices, and alarming military build-up.
Moreover, the president’s experience in another Asian country, Indonesia, will undoubtedly help him understand that Asia is more than just China, and that Asians are quite capable of governing themselves under democratic rule. The young president will be less beholden to past legacies that define our China policy. He could start by questioning a policy that gives China a pass on its human-rights practices at home and irresponsible polices abroad. He can also puzzle over why China so often sets the policy agenda in a region made up of so many diverse and successful democratic countries.
A less Sino-centric Asia policy would be good for the United States, the rest of Asia and ultimately the Chinese people themselves. China is the only Asian power that is not a democracy. The United States benefits from deep and enduring cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Taiwan, precisely because these relationships are embedded in common values and interests.
China is more than capable of joining this club. Many Chinese people yearn for a more just and open system that acts responsibly on the world stage. If Mr. Obama changes America’s “engagement at any price” policy, he will help the Chinese people fulfill their own aspirations at the same time as he advances American interests.
Obviously the president should not end America’s engagement with China–that would be both imprudent and impossible. But he can change the way Washington engages. Mr. Obama can directly speak to the tech-savvy Chinese people–among whom he is very popular–about universal notions of liberty, justice and transparency.
At the same time, he can carry out America’s official business with the Chinese Communist Party, urging a more balanced trade policy, cooperation on energy and the environment and cooperation on nonproliferation.
But he need not indulge in ritualized happy talk about a Sino-American relationship that is still fraught with problems. Neither should he repeat his predecessors’ practice of overstating the relationship’s modest successes. Speaking truthfully about a relationship characterized by economic interdependence on the one hand, and concerns about China’s polices on the other, will set the relationship on a firmer course.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama could strengthen relationships with Asia’s diverse democracies from Jakarta to Taipei to Delhi. All of Washington’s allies want to benefit from trade with China, but at the same time all are worried that an autocratic China will one day dominate Asia. In turn, as China sees Washington net together a web of Asia’s democracies, China’s many reformers could hold their government to the same standards of behavior as their democratic neighbors.
As our first president who came of age after the Cold War, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to dispose of the Cold War baggage that still guides our China policy. If Mr. Obama sides with the Chinese people pushing for a just and open society he will hear a billion more “yes we cans.”
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.
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