China's Diplomatic Role in the World

In the final installment of our four-part series on China-U.S. relations, Mike Shuster explores China's diplomatic role in the world. The United States has encouraged Chinese involvement with international issues like North Korea's nuclear weapons. But now, diplomacy has become another area where the U.S. and China are competitors.

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As China grows a stronger economy and a stronger military, it's also becoming stronger on the world stage. All this week, we've been taking an extended look at the complex relations between China and the United States, and this morning we'll finish with diplomacy. The United States has encouraged Chinese involvement with international issues like North Korea's nuclear weapons. But now diplomacy has become another area where the US and China are competitors. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

For more than 30 years, the administrations of seven presidents have pursued much the same policy toward China: Engage it and encourage it to enter the global economic and diplomatic system. That policy has largely been successful, and now the Bush administration foresees a time when the US and China, in something of a partnership, will play mutually supportive roles on the world stage. At least a part of the Bush administration favors that, as reflected in a speech last month by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

Deputy Secretary of State ROBERT ZOELLICK: We now need to encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system. As a responsible stakeholder, China would be more than just a member. It would work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success.

SHUSTER: The first test of this approach has been the North Korea talks involving the US, China, Japan, Russia and North and South Korea. For more than a year, the Bush administration pressed China to take the lead in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Last month, largely through China's initiative, both North Korea and the US agreed on an approach to this thorny issue that was seen as the first step forward in nearly three years. It was an important diplomatic success for the Chinese, says Chris Nelson, author of an influential newsletter on US policy in Asia.

Mr. CHRIS NELSON (Writer): They have stepped forward. They have taken more responsibility. They have put their international prestige on the line. So far, they look pretty good, because they're the ones who got this principle done, and we sort of handed them this lever for increased power and prestige in Asia. A lot of people here are criticizing us for that.

SHUSTER: The criticism is coming from outside and from within the Bush administration. Some inside the Pentagon especially have suspicions of China's rise and believe the US should hedge its engagement policy toward China. Analysts on the right outside the administration are more candid. They say China intends to supplant the US as the preeminent power in the Asia Pacific region. For Kenneth Lieberthal, the key White House adviser on China in the Clinton administration, China is pursuing the diplomatic status that any growing power would seek.

Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (China Adviser, Clinton Administration): They want to be in a position where any important multilateral issue requires people, among others, taking into account China's views. We feel the same way about American views.

SHUSTER: China's role in the North Korea talks has already attracted much attention elsewhere in Asia, and China is pursuing diplomacy there aggressively. It has created several multilateral groupings that include most East Asian nations but have excluded the United States. That has also underscored the suspicions of some analysts and policy-makers about China. David Lampton of the Nixon Center in Washington believes these initiatives on China's part are understandable.

Mr. DAVID LAMPTON (Nixon Center): It's not that the Chinese want to dominate Asia; that means in terms of dictating the decisions and outcomes in the countries around it. I think what China wants is a situation in which no other major power can engage in activity that's contrary to China's vital interests. In other words, I think China would like a veto on extremely harmful policies of others in the region.

SHUSTER: Not many analysts want to say it, but that sounds much like the Monroe Doctrine, the policy that the US has pursued for nearly 200 years whereby the US warned other great powers not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere. It is not surprising that such a policy would set off suspicions among policy-makers, especially in the Bush administration where, for the past four years, foreign policy has been dominated by figures who favor the aggressive use of military force to protect America's place in the world. All of these issues--China's diplomatic status, its commercial success and its military expansion--have led to more division than agreement inside the administration and out. There doesn't look to be reconciliation on a clear China policy anytime soon, says Chris Nelson.

Mr. NELSON: This fight within the administration of what China is it we're facing, what threat do we have here, how do we react to it? This is a really ongoing, very serious debate, and it is by no means settled.

SHUSTER: Many Americans tend to see China now as a juggernaut, says Bates Gill of The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but he says it's not that simple.

Mr. BATES GILL (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): The danger we have in facing such a complex relationship is trying to boil it down to simplicities. If we do that, we're going to be in major trouble. What we need is a nuanced and complex policy that's reflective of the complexities and difficulties that we face in dealing with a country like China.

SHUSTER: China poses more challenges to the US than even the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, says Kurt Campbell, a former Pentagon official on Asia.

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Former Pentagon Official): Our destiny is that policy towards China is bound to be contentious and probably divisive and that the best we can do is learn as much as we can to remain as focused as possible and to appreciate that the stakes could not be higher.

SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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