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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 17, 2006)

A Resurgent China: Responsible Stakeholder or Robust Rival?

Tom Lantos (Leader of Opposition at the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee Asia SubCommittee)

The debate in Washington foreign policy circles as to whether China is a "responsible stakeholder" or a "rising challenge" presents a false dichotomy. Nearly three decades after we normalized relations, it is self-evident that China is both.

Beijing and Washington have a mature, evolving relationship with areas of both conflict and cooperation. But even if our interconnectedness is assured, decisions made in Beijing over the next few months will determine the tenor of our bilateral ties for years to come. In fact, China's handling of a new Security Council resolution on Iran could well become the sine qua non of U.S.-China relations and an indication of Beijing's willingness to be a "responsible stakeholder." China must support a strong, tough resolution demanding that Iran verifiably eliminate its nuclear weapons program. If it supports such a resolution, this will send a clear signal that Beijing recognizes that with global power and prestige comes global responsibility. If it is unwilling to tackle squarely the Ayatollahs' nuclear aspirations, this decision will severely damage U.S.-China relations.

The North Korea nuclear issue will also determine whether President Hu receives an official state visit the next time he comes to Washington, or another downgraded official lunch. China has hosted the Six-Party Talks and is willing to use some of its economic leverage to force Pyongyang to the table -- both of these are good signs. On my two visits to North Korea last year, I stopped in Beijing for consultations with senior Chinese leaders. In many respects, the U.S. and China see the North Korea situation in a very similar light - we both seek a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and are frustrated with the endless prevarications emanating from Pyongyang.

But good intentions and shared goals are not enough. Now that the Six Party Talks are stalled, this is Beijing's moment to demonstrate that it is an international leader. The flow of non-humanitarian trade and assistance from China to North Korea must end until Pyongyang returns to the bargaining table, ready to give up its nuclear program in exchange for international recognition and assistance.

Cross-Strait relations will be another key factor in the U.S.-China relationship. The U.S., under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has done its part to promote peace by publicly and privately discouraging Taiwan from taking provocative steps towards independence. But the PRC has done little to promote stability. The alarming buildup of missiles aimed at Taiwan and the enactment of the so-called anti-secession law have dramatically heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing. China's new generation of leaders should use their creative energies to build bridges to Taiwan's democratically elected government. They should not resort to school-yard bullying tactics.

Finally, we will never have a fully normal relationship with China until there is measurable progress on human rights and religious freedom. Tibet is the perfect example of how Beijing could demonstrate its new role as a "responsible stakeholder." We are pleased that China has held five rounds of discussions with representatives of His Holiness The Dalai Lama regarding the future of Tibet. But our patience is wearing thin. The talks have not produced concrete progress, but only more talks. Beijing should invite The Dalai Lama to visit China and Tibet in the near future. Beijing should also negotiate a deal which preserves Tibet's unique cultural and religious heritage while maintaining China's territorial integrity.

Religious freedom is a right due all Chinese, whether Tibetan, members of the Catholic Church, or the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Just last week, the Chinese government appointed two Catholic bishops without Vatican approval. The last time I looked, it was the job of Pope Benedict XVI to select bishops, not communist atheists in the Politburo in Beijing. The rights of Falun Gong adherents in China have similarly been denied. Tens of thousands have been locked away in psychiatric institutions, tortured and jailed, and even killed for refusing to renounce their faith. What a tragedy!

It's even more unconscionable that American companies would be willing participants in the systematic denial of human rights in China, but that is exactly the decision made by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The executives of these high-tech companies, by turning themselves into Internet censors and email police, have truly lost their moral compass.

It is important for the Congress to reflect on the U.S.-China relationship. It need not polarize the foreign policy establishment, for it is too complex to have only one dimension.

(Slightly edited opening statement as the leader of opposition at the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee Asia SubCommittee meeting on May 10. Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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