Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to extend normal trade relations, known as `most favored nation’ (MFN) status, for China for another year. The MFN debate was hotly contested. Opponents argued that China’s record on human rights, trade, proliferation and other issues did not justify extending normal trade relations. I disagree. Engagement–including normal trade relations–is the best means to bring China into the international community and to achieve U.S. political, economic and security objectives.
China matters. China is the world’s most populous country, with the largest army and one of the largest economies. Its actions directly affect peace and stability throughout East and Southeast Asia. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has a say in many decisions affecting U.S. interests. How China evolves will profoundly affect our economic, political and security interests. If China becomes a threat, the U.S. defense budget will go up, tensions in Asia will rise, and Asia’s prosperity will be at risk. If we keep U.S.-China relations on track, peace and security in Asia will be strengthened, prospects for human rights will be enhanced, and Asia’s remarkable economic growth will continue.
A policy of engagement. By extending normal trade relations for another year, the House chose a policy of engagement over a policy of isolation. I agree. Engagement has been the policy of every President, Democratic and Republican, for twenty-five years. Engagement is not appeasement. It does not mean ignoring our differences with China. It means actively engaging China to resolve our differences. It means hard bargaining in pursuit of American objectives.
Engagement works. It has produced results, such as Chinese adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Because of engagement, China helped persuade North Korea to sign the pact freezing that country’s nuclear weapons program. China’s cooperation in the UN Security Council helped create the coalition that defeated Iraq in the Gulf War.
Engagement with China has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese for the better. The exchange of goods, ideas, and people has brought increased openness, social mobility, and personal opportunities for the Chinese people.
Because we are engaged with China, we can use our trade laws to attack Chinese trade barriers and to help American firms export to China. Because we are engaged with China, we can work together to combat terrorism, alien smuggling, and illegal narcotics. China also cooperates on environmental and public health issues–matters with a direct impact on our well-being.
Key issues. Engagement has not solved all problems. We still have many concerns about Chinese behavior. China continues to fall far short on human rights, for example. China today remains an oppressive society. Political expression is limited, and the rights of the individual are subordinated to the interests of the state–as defined by a self-selected party elite.
But China is light years ahead of where it was 25 years ago. Personal freedoms for the average Chinese–choice of employment, place of residence, freedom of movement–are greater than ever before. The lesson of China since President Nixon’s visit in 1972–and the lessons of South Korea, Taiwan, and other former dictatorships that are now democracies–is that U.S. engagement is the best way to promote human rights.
The $38 billion U.S. trade deficit with China is another source of tension. Yet revoking normal trading status will not significantly reduce this deficit or bring back lost jobs. Other countries that, like China, can produce labor-intensive goods more cheaply than we can will simply pick up the slack. The best way to reduce the trade deficit is not to revoke MFN–which might even increase the deficit–but to bring China into the World Trade Organization, so that we can reduce Chinese trade barriers and help American exporters compete on a level playing field.
On non-proliferation, China has moved in the right direction. Despite this progress, I remain concerned about Chinese transfers of missile and chemical weapons technology and advanced conventional weapons to Iran, about Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran and Pakistan, and about Chinese missile sales to Pakistan. But, as the recent record shows, we are more likely to persuade China to accept international norms if we engage China than if we isolate it.
Revoking MFN. If Congress had revoked MFN, it would have damaged U.S. interests at home, in China and around the world. Revoking MFN would likely make the human rights situation in China worse, not better. It would undermine our stature throughout Asia.
Our allies in the region, who support U.S. engagement and benefit from U.S.-China trade, would lose confidence in our judgment and ability to play a constructive role in East Asia. Hong Kong and Taiwan, which support engagement, would be worse off if we revoked MFN. We would also be losing the support of one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which would hurt U.S. interests globally.
Revoking MFN would hurt the United States at home. We would lose markets for $12 billion worth of U.S. exports, which support 170,000 high-paying U.S. jobs. It would raise prices here on low-cost imports. It would deny us access to China’s huge market.
Conclusion. The United States could not isolate China even if we wanted to–China is too big, and too important. We can disengage from China, but no one would follow us and we would only hurt our interests. If we treat China as an enemy, it will become one. Engagement offers a proven record of moving China toward international norms, and a better prospect for achieving U.S. objectives than a policy of isolation.