May 1, 2012

"Getting Tough" with China Is Bad Policy

Jack Goldstone

Senior Research Fellow
Summary

The U.S.-China relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship in world politics for some time to come. It is thus imperative that relations with China's new leaders start out in a way that offers something positive for both sides. "Getting tough" with China may sound like good politics, but it is bad policy.

The May 3-4 Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing brings together the world's two largest economies at a time when both are struggling with economic weakness and political transitions.  Fortunately, both the Chinese, who want to show that the new leadership is in firm control, and the Americans, who want something for the Obama administration to show in the coming election season, have strong reasons to show progress on issues of common concern, whether it is nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea or the civil conflict in Syria.

There is a right and wrong way to approach these negotiations, however.  The wrong way would be for the United States to "get tough" and seek to embarrass China over its human rights issues or its support of North Korea.  The new leadership in China would then have to "get tough" in return, and both sides will get nothing out of the summit.  However, because the problems associated with the downfall of princeling Bo Xilai have been so embarrassing, as well as the escape and apparent defection of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese are vulnerable. 

In return for not publicly humiliating the Chinese over these issues, the United States should seek some clear, positive steps from China's leaders, such as support for more observers in Syria, arms talks with North Korea, or in stopping the mounting conflict between North and South Sudan.  

The U.S.-China relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship in world politics for some time to come. It is thus imperative that relations with China's new leaders start out in a way that offers something positive for both sides.  "Getting tough" with China may sound like good politics, but it is bad policy.