Asian Strategies Group


Copyright The South China Morning Post

Let Restraint Rule in Both Countries

by David Gries

Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neil famously said that all national politics is local. If he had lived to read what the international press is saying on the eve of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to the U.S., O'Neil might have added that all foreign policy is domestic, heavily influenced by political organizations and interest groups which sometimes put their own interests ahead of the national interest. Publics in both countries underestimate the power of their leaders to shape effective policy in such an atmosphere.

The good news is that the leaders that count in China and the U.S. have managed to keep the relationship intact, despite sometimes intense disagreements over issues. On the Chinese side, leaders include every communist party chairperson since Mao, and on the American side, every president since Nixon. The bad news is that other leaders in both countries have become expert at raising issues to the boiling point. Unless a little restraint is shown, a number of these issues are in danger of boiling over during Premier Zhu's U.S. visit.

[callout]The list of politically active American groups staking a claim on China policy is nearly endless, running the gamut from environmental, human rights, and labor groups to trade associations and even state and local governments. This is not to judge the worth of any of these issues, but to point out that their narrow focus complicates efforts to craft broadly based policy. Although the views of each interest group must be taken into account, only rarely can foreign policy be crafted around a single issue. There is nothing new about this; American foreign policy has been a political battleground from the beginning. That's the nature of democracy, and it seems to work pretty well.

What is less obvious to many Americans is that Chinese leaders are also beset by politically active organizations and groups-usually called factions-intent on influencing foreign policy and, on occasion, plunging it into crisis. Although the Chinese list is not as long as the American one, it is growing steadily, starting with powerful institutions like state-owned enterprises, the internal security bureaucracy, the military, and political factions in the leaderships, and ending with a host of new entrants, including organizations representing the environment, women's rights, and private entrepreneurs. The views of some of these groups would benefit Chinese-U.S. relations, but that is not true of all of them.

One reason the influence of politically active groups in China and the U.S. is underestimated is that both publics exaggerate the extent to which the other side's leaders are able to keep foreign policy making under control. The truth is far less elegant. The Chinese and American governments are tangles of conflicting interests, and it is something of a mystery how they are able to function at all.

Many Americans believe that the Chinese government is a disciplined monolith responsive to a few leaders. The reality is quite different. The architects of Chinese foreign policy face contending views circulating inside and outside government, explaining in part why there is such a gap between policy pronouncements in Beijing and policy execution abroad. Accustomed through the centuries to dealing with authoritarian central governments, Chinese officials are masters at mouthing support for whatever Beijing says while carrying out only those policies which advance their interests.

The Chinese public has an even more distorted notion about the unity and cohesion of the American government. Generally unaware that America's founding generation, scarred by the abuses of the English crown, deliberately separated the three branches of government to limit the power of any one of them, the Chinese are forever identifying conspiracies in Washington designed to undercut Chinese-American ties.

To be sure, there are organizations and interest groups in Washington bent on disrupting Chinese-American relations, but it is a stretch to call them conspiracies and an even greater stretch to claim that they have government backing. China's American analysts would do well to start with the assumption that when a Democrat sits in the White House, Republicans will attack the administration's China policy. And when a Republican sits there, as former President George Bush surely remembers, the Democrats will do the same.

So what can be done? Basically, very little. Chinese foreign policy makers are stuck with their factions, and American policy makers are stuck with their interest groups. Nor is this necessarily is a bad thing. For most of the period when Mao had nearly unchecked control of China's foreign policy, Chinese-U.S. relations were in the deep freeze. Now, as more voices are heard in policy making circles in Beijing, China is becoming a force in the world, despite some practices which many of us deplore. And on the American side, there have been times when political activists have stopped presidents like McKinley from turning foreign policy too far away from American ideals.

But there are some small steps which both sides could take. The Chinese propaganda machine could be a lot less shrill in accusing Washington of everything from trying to contain China to playing favorites with Taiwan, and on the American side, our two political parties could show more restraint in using China policy to attack each other. With another American presidential election coming up and with China due to pick a new leader in the not to distant future, one might hope that Chinese-American relations will not become a major issue in what will surely be tough battles for leadership in both countries.

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