The upcoming leadership shift at the State Department has sent my mind racing over U.S.-China relations. Will China policy change when the moderate Colin Powell yields the secretary's...

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The upcoming leadership shift at the State Department has sent my mind racing over U.S.-China relations. Will China policy change when the moderate Colin Powell yields the secretary’s post to the not-so-moderate Condoleezza Rice?

In a CNBC-TV interview last month, Powell described the United States’ relationship with China as the best in over 30 years. The two countries could agree and disagree on things in a mature fashion. He ended by saying:

“What we want to do is engage China, watch how they develop in the future, watch it with caution, but not with fear; watch it for the purpose of moving along with China and not trying to contain China.”

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Those were heart-warming words.

But many of you must remember, as I do, the chilling atmosphere concerning China four years ago. A campaign promoting fear of China had been launched by “China threat” theorists with publications such as “The Coming Conflict with China” and “Red Dragon Rising.” They pictured China as the next evil empire and warned America of an inevitable confrontation.

It was in this atmosphere that President Bush took office. He held to a hard-line China policy, differing from President Clinton by viewing China more as a strategic competitor. Bush said that the U.S. would do whatever it took to defend Taiwan.

Powell rejected from the very start the notion that China was an enemy.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2001, Powell stated:

“A strategic partner China is not. But neither is China our inevitable and implacable foe. China is a competitor and a potential regional rival, but also a trading partner willing to cooperate in the areas
where our strategic interests overlap
.” [Emphasis added.]

Powell helped Bush successfully handle the EP-3 American spy-plane incident with China in April 2001, avoiding a possible larger crisis in U.S.-China relations. Bush spoke harshly and publicly in demanding the Chinese return the plane and its crew to the U.S. Powell undertook a lower-profile diplomatic effort. The president subsequently thanked Powell for his calmness and steadiness in resolving that episode.

With the start of the war on terror, Powell again helped Bush redefine U.S.-China relations in the post-9/11 era. Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2002, Powell spelled out the administration’s new three-word framework:

“The U.S. is building a candid, constructive and cooperative relationship with China. Candid when we disagree; constructive where we can see some daylight; and cooperative where we have common regional or global interests.”

It is in the spirit of these three C’s that our relationship with China has reached its current healthy state, the best, as Powell says, in over three decades.

Now, with Rice coming in, will the spirit continue?

Many believe that under the new secretary, the State Department and U.S. foreign policy will become more hard-line and turn further to the right.

In the January 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, writing as the foreign-policy adviser to then-Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice revealed her position on China at that point as between hard-line and moderate.

On the one hand, Rice believed that there was a link between economic liberalization and democracy, and that trade could open up China’s economy and, ultimately, its politics.

On the other, Rice also believed that as an emerging power that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor, China was a potential threat to stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

But that was then. Now with China’s cooperation in counter-terrorism, especially its work as a strategic partner with the U.S., first in South Asia and then on North Korea, Rice seems to have adjusted her position, too.

In February this year, while giving a speech on Bush foreign policy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Rice talked about China, using the same three-word characterization that Powell had first used:

“We are building a candid, cooperative and constructive relationship with China that embraces our common interests but never loses sight of our considerable differences about values.”

That was good to hear for people like myself who want to see continued good relations between the U.S. and China.

Rice may be more hard-line than Powell on certain foreign-policy issues. But on China, she seems to share Powell’s moderate and pragmatic views. So a change of hands may not mean a change of China policy after all? So I hope.


Wendy Liu is an independent China business consultant and translator living in Federal Way. She can be reached at lyw8@aol.com