Engagement, not estrangement, needed in China policy

The U.S. government pursues two distinct policies towards nations not in line with what Washington considers to be correct policy. During the recent U.S.-China summit, we heard a great deal about “engagement” and “cooperation” (as opposed to “estrangement” and “containment”) as methods for “handling” China. Put simply, policies of engagement are based on a model of an interdependent world where stronger ties with other nations decrease the likelihood of conflict since states rely on one another to a great enough degree that war becomes too costly. Policies of estrangement or isolation, on the other hand, rely on realist ideas that “rogue nations” can be “put in their place” and “brought around” via economic sanctions and military threats. In this case, punitive measures are thought to bring about the desired outcomes – such as, if we take away China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status, Beijing will be forced to change its human rights policies – whereas the engagement model would recommend maximum interaction – as China is increasingly exposed to our culture, our values and, essentially, our products, it will become more “like us.”

Abstracting the argument for a moment, it would seem fairly self-evident that an individual shut out of a system, shunned by his or her peers, would grow increasingly mistrustful and hostile, while being placed in an increasingly defensive and reactive position. Were this same individual brought into the group, though, he or she – through a process of peer pressure (if one views this as a negative effect) or one of cultural assimilation (a slightly more benign term, if a more insidious process) – would not only develop similarities with the other members but, furthermore, would become enmeshed in group ties and responsibilities and therefore be less likely to act rashly. Operating from within a structure is inherently more stable than operating from without. To date, with the current notable exception of China, the U.S. government has regretably chosen policies of estrangement rather than engagement (North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Cuba for example).

What does all of this mean for human rights? The same model applies. Particularly as American economic might wanes (indeed, in this arena China – holder of our second largest trade deficit – needs the U.S. much less than we need China), we should be pursuing the one clear advantage we do have left: cultural pull, or “soft power.” The idea of soft power rests on the exportation of our values, ways and cultural symbols as a method of increasing U.S. power, as opposed to economic or military action. Neither we nor our government can change Chinese society; rather, change has to be demanded by the Chinese themselves. The U.S. should concentrate on information-based influence and leave the economics and politics alone. The Voice of America, Internet infrastructure, as well as American cultural icons (sadly, most often McDonald’s and Marlboros, but it’s a start) are going to do a great deal more to change the opinions of the Chinese people toward the relative merits of our respectives styles of government than any economic restrictions or diplomatic posturing.

Does this mean we should just sit back and hope things change for the better? No, of course not. The demonstrations that greeted Jiang every step of his trip were an excellent articulation of our position as a people. Washington’s toning down of the anti-China rhetoric was a good move as well. Prominent dissident Wei Jingsheng’s release came only weeks after the fairly smooth summit; all the bickering and pressuring of the past had done little for him.

I realize this is a vague and somewhat unsatisfactory answer, but in light of American attempts at isolating North Korea, Iran, Iraq, etc. and resulting failures to effect change in any of these nations, the traditional U.S. policy of estrangement certainly isn’t getting the job done. Furthermore, as people reach economic levels at which basic sustenance is no longer an issue, they will be more likely to press for more abstract social and political rights. Democracy is neither a quick nor finite process. We’ve been fine-tuning our system for a couple centuries; expecting the Chinese to go from Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist party system to open democracy in a few decades is a bit unrealistic. Important strides have been made in the lives of the people, and while their civil and political rights may not be improving as rapidly as we would hope, too much pressure from the U.S. will probably undermine the cause rather than help it. Nurturing domestic desires for change in China and engaging Beijing in constructive dialogue is our – and their – best chance.