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U.S. Strategy: Engage China, Not Contain It
Remarks as Secretary of Defense William H. Perry , Washington State China Relations Council, Seattle, Monday, October 30, 1995

Defense Issues: Volume 10, Number 109-- U.S. Strategy: Engage China, Not Contain It The direction of change in China so far suggests that long-term changes will favor America's interests. Seeking to contain and confront China can only slow down the pace of this change.


Volume 10, Number 109

U.S. Strategy: Engage China, Not Contain It

Remarks as delivered by Secretary of Defense William H. Perry to the Washington State China Relations Council, Seattle, Oct. 30, 1995, followed by selected questions and answers.

Last week at the meeting with President Jiang [Zemin] at Lincoln Center, President Clinton said the world is relying on us to do the right thing. The world is relying on us to do the right thing. And so, it is.

Today, I embark on a week-long trip to Japan and Korea. I will be discussing with the leaders of these two nations critically important security issues, including the increasingly important role of China in the security of the region, indeed, the security of the world. Because the new geopolitical order is being created in the Asia-Pacific region as one of the world's most ancient nations emerges as one of the world's most powerful nations.

China is, of course, the world's most populous country. It has perhaps the fourth largest economy in the world and what's certainly one of the fastest growing. It is already a major military power and is engaged in an ambitious modernization program. It is a nuclear power and has a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. These factors lead to the inescapable conclusion that China is becoming a major world power.

As China does so, it is inescapable that China's interest will sometimes harmonize and sometimes conflict with those of the United States. The government of the United States recognizes this fundamental fact. Our response to it as a policy of comprehensive engagement with China. This policy is the right thing which President Clinton referred last week.

We believe that engagement is the best strategy to ensure that as China increases its power, it does so as a responsible member of the international community. And we believe that is critical if peace, prosperity and stability are to endure in Asia and around the world.

Today, I will describe the engagement strategy with China and tell you why I so strongly believe that it is in America's national security interest. The overarching premise of this strategy is that whatever our differences with China we also have important common interests and that these interests make dialogue more rational than confrontation

We believe that through a healthy, honest dialogue we could work together where we agree and reduce tensions where we disagree, in both cases to our mutual benefit. This dialogue will help us reinforce positive developments in China and encourage China to become a stabilizing influence in the region and in the world.

In short, we do not choose engagement as a favor to China, but because it serves our own national interest both globally and in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, President Clinton has said that engagement is in the strategic, economic and political interests of both the United States and China.

This policy of comprehensive engagement with China is not new. Indeed, U.S. engagement with China has been pursued for over 20 years by six American presidents -- both Democrat and Republican -- and it has a solid track record.

Secretary [of State Warren] Christopher made his point last July when he said, "Time and time again it has been demonstrated our ability to work together with China on key challenges of regional and global importance is best manifested by being engaged."

As a member of the administration foreign policy team, I wholeheartedly support our policy of engagement with China, and as the American secretary of defense, I work hard to make engagement with China a reality because engagement allows us to take constructive steps to protect our security. That is why I have tenaciously pursued security engagement with defense counterparts in China. ...

Why am I willing to invest so much time and energy in this? First, I believe that security engagement with China will help us influence China's policies in ways that will help curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Second, engagement gives us an opportunity to influence China to play a positive role in regional instability where U.S. interests are very much at stake such as on the Korean Peninsula, the Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Third, engagement opens lines of communication with the People's Liberation Army - the PLA. A major player in Chinese politics, the PLA wields significant influence on such issues as Taiwan, the South China Sea and proliferation. And if we are to achieve progress on these issues, we must engage PLA leaders directly.

Fourth, by engaging the PLA directly, we can help promote more openness in the Chinese national security apparatus, including its military institutions. Promoting openness or transparency about Chinese strategic intentions, procurement, budgeting and operating procedures will not only help promote confidence among China's neighbors, it will also lessen the chance of misunderstandings or incidents when our forces operate in the areas where Chinese military forces are also deployed.

In addition to our bilateral efforts, we engage the Chinese in new and promising regional security dialogues designed to convey intentions and build mutual confidence. I am not speculating that these are possible or potential benefits from engaging China. They are real and they are tangible. I have seen them with my own eyes.

I have visited China eight times, twice in an official capacity. My most recent trip was just one year ago. ... During that visit, senior PLA officials agreed to an exchange of information about defense strategy, programing and budget. But we also secured an agreement from China to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban regime.

Even more interesting was the timing of the visit. Because while I was there, we were in the midst of a major impasse with the North Koreans and our efforts to get them to agree to end their nuclear weapons program. For some time, we had told the Chinese leadership that we saw this program as a serious danger to regional security, and they agreed.

During the visit, I told them that the North Koreans were about to go ahead with reprocessing the nuclear fuel. I pointed out the danger to regional stability of their doing that, and I asked them to use their influence with the North Koreans. Just a few days later, the North Koreans agreed to halt their program, and, in the end, they met our terms for stopping the program.

I will never know whether the Chinese had any specific influence on this outcome, but I do know that on this and some other important security issues, China sees our two sets of interests as compatible. But some critics, both in the United States and in China, do not see our interests as compatible, and these critics on both sides of the ocean strongly oppose comprehensive engagement between our two nations and do everything they can to try to stop it.

Critics in the United States tend to say that instead of engaging China, we should contain China much like we did the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These critics see a strong, growing China as an implacable threat to America's interest and believe that we must oppose China at every turn. These critics go on to assume that since containment implies opposing China at every turn, an engagement must mean accommodating or even appeasing China at every turn.

This line of argument is doubly flawed. It is flawed pragmatically because a containment policy towards China would lead to results counter to America's security interest. And it is flawed philosophically because the containment vs. engagement debate presents a false dichotomy. Engagement does not equal appeasement or even accommodation.

Let me address both these fallacies. Containment is flawed pragmatically because it could actually undermine our national security interest. We do have vital national security interests in limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction and discouraging China's export of nuclear or missile technology and implementing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and implementing the framework agreement dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. A China that feels we are attempting to encircle it with a containment policy is quite unlikely to provide the cooperation needed to achieve any of these vital security objectives.

We also have vital security interests in avoiding an arms race or military conflict in the region. A containment policy could stimulate China to accelerate its defense modernization efforts, contributing to regional arms races and increasing the likelihood of military conflict in regional hotspots, like North Korea, the Taiwan Strait the South China Sea.

We also have vital security interests in maintaining the strength of our alliances in the Pacific with such allies as Japan, Korea, Philippines and Australia. These nations, for their own economic and political reasons, are extremely unlikely to join us in a containment policy, leading to a rupture in our regional alliances.

We have vital security as well as economic interest in maintaining the strength of our Asia-Pacific markets. A containment policy could lead America and China to close their markets to each other and set back our efforts to persuade nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region to open, not close, their markets.

And finally, containment would only provoke reflexive and intractable Chinese opposition to U.S.-led security initiatives in the U.N. and other multilateral bodies.

If the United States were to adopt a containment policy towards China, I believe that all of these results are not only possible, but they are probable. And I think that it is self-evident that these results are directly contrary to our national security interest, Given this, I can only surmise that the reason why some are willing to accept these considerable downsides to containment is because they don't fully understand what engagement is and what it is not.

Which brings me to their other fallacy, that engagement equals appeasement. That idea is dead wrong. Engagement is not appeasement. It does not mean that the United States blithely acquiesces to policies with which we disagree. It does not mean that we ignore China's serious and ongoing human rights violations, and it does not mean that we turn our head when China exports dangerous weapons technology to dangerous regimes.

Engagement does not mean that we will ignore those issues, but it does mean that we will not try to isolate China because of them. Instead, engagement recognizes that the best way for changing China's policies that we don't like is to firm diplomacy and dialogue. It recognizes that Chinese policies are unlikely to be changed by hostility, rhetoric and confrontation, and it recognizes that even when we strongly disagree with China, we cannot make our entire relationship hostage to a single issue -- that we still have security reasons for maintaining lines of communication.

Engagement also does not preclude us from pursuing our interests with all appropriate instruments of national power. An engagement is entirely consistent with the U.S. taking steps to prevent and deter threats to America's allies and our interests. That is why we will continue to maintain strong, ready military forces with approximately 100,000 forward-deployed in the Pacific theater.

In short, the policy of engagement is founded on neither faith nor idealism. It is instead rooted firmly in reality and in self-interest.

Americans must realize that this is a case where history and time are on our side. In the long run, change is coming to China. For example, while Beijing still abuses human rights activists, market reforms are leading to the rapid development of laws that place increasing constraints on government and ultimately will empower citizens to defend basic civil rights,

While the ruling Communist Party often practices politics in the old Cold War ways, there is growing experimentation at the village level with democratic elections. And while China's economy remains burdened by central control and state planning, four out of every five commodities in China are now distributed through market channels at prices set largely by the market.

The direction of these changes suggest it is more likely than not that long-term change in China will favor our interest. Seeking to contain and confront China can only slow down the pace of this change.

While I've told you why engagement is in America's self-interest, but I also believe that engagement is in China's self-interest. But for engagement to work, China's leadership must share this perception. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to engage.

Our policy accepts China at its word when it says that it wants to become a responsible world power, but it also requires that China act like one. The United States government has tried very hard to send China the right messages. Now, it is time for China to start sending the right messages.

For example, we do not like it when China conducts nuclear tests, but we take China at its word when it says it will join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We look forward to China honoring that pledge.

We have also made it very clear to China that we are sticking to our one-China policy and the principles set forth in the U.S-China communiques of 1972, '79 and '82. And we have reaffirmed that we have no intention of advocating or supporting a policy of two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan.

Now China has to show that they too want a peaceful resolution to this issue. Conducting missile tests off Taiwan sends the opposite message. China sometimes claims that America is not sensitive to Chinese values, but China has to make a greater effort to be sensitive to widely accepted international values -- values such as the freedom of travel and freedom of speech. When China shows gross insensitivity to these two values, it is not acting like a reasonable world power.

I am also willing to state quite plainly that engagement will not work if China is determined to ignore the security concerns of most members of the international community -- and transfer to known terrorist states the production technologies and the know-how of weapons of mass destruction does ignore those security concerns.

China has borders with 12 nations -- some of them with unstable governments. Therefore, they should recognize that promoting proliferation is counter to their own long-term interests. This administration is committed to engagement, but not engagement at any price. It is important for audiences on both sides of the Pacific to understand both parts of that sentence. We are committed to engagement, but not at any price.

One year ago, I addressed an audience of military officers at the national defense university of the PLA in Beijing. I said in that speech anyone who believes that the United States is trying to contain China doesn't know very much about the United States or its defense policies.

I stand by those words today, and as I look towards tomorrow, I see grounds of both peace and optimism. If there is a hunkering down on both sides of the Pacific, a stubborn focus on issues that divide us and a attempt to misconstrue each other's actions, then the future is likely to be troubled. It could lead to a period of serious and protracted tension between the United States and China. I believe that would be a failure of major proportions.

But if, on the other hand, there's clear, level-headed thinking in both countries, a patient focus on the issues that unite us, a willingness to be open and understanding with each other, then the future has much promise. And it could lead to a period where both our countries correctly put long-term interest over a short-term calculations.

Well, I began my talk by reminding you of President Clinton's telling President Jiang, "The world is relying on us to do the right thing." During the Second World War, Winston Churchill once said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after having first exhausted all other alternatives." I truly believe that both the Americans and the Chinese have exhausted all other alternatives, and it is time for both countries to do the right thing.

I thank you.

Q. I was wondering if you could comment on the effects of China's development of a blue-water navy on our defense strategies as well as stability within in the region.

A. In my first visit to China in 1980, they had just agreed on four modernizations and the priority of these four modernizations. And defense was the last of the four priorities -- one that received the lowest priority and, as a consequence, the defense capability of China declined rather dramatically from 1980 to 1990 in my assessment.

That was probably a successful strategy on China's part because it did lay the foundation for the very successful economic growth they've had in the last four or five years. As that economic growth continues, the Chinese have now have been diverting some of their resources -- and more of their resources -- to defense modernization, including increasing the capability of their navy.

The Chinese navy -- now, I do not see that as a threat to the United States now or in the foreseeable future. The United States Navy is not only the most powerful navy in the world, it is more powerful than all the other navies in the world put together. I hope that doesn't sound like a chauvinistic statement. It's my best assessment of the objective reality today, and I do not see any nation or combination of nations being able to challenge the United States Navy's dominance of the seas any time in my lifetime.

Q. As you look ahead, what potential flashpoints in the U.S. relationship with China are you most concerned about?

A. There are several different flashpoints, some of which are directly security issues and others which affect our security indirectly, but still in important ways.

We as a nation continue to be concerned about what we see as human rights abuses in China, and that influences all of our relations with China, not just economic, not just political, it affects security as well.

The most immediate direct concern to me from a security point of view ... does not have to do with the modernization of the Chinese military forces. It has to do with the proliferation of some of their production and know-how and some of their weapons to other nations in the world which we see as dangerous regimes. To Iran, for example. And that's the one I would put No. 1 on my list. ... Every time I speak to my Chinese counterparts, that's the first issue that I discuss as a potential flashpoint. ...

Q. Do you feel that what China is doing to modernize its military is consistent with the role in Asia that you would like to see China playing?

A. At its present level and at its present pace, I do not see reason for alarm in China's modernization program. Certainly I see no substantial threat to the United States. Many of its neighbors do, and I think that's not only a problem for them, it's a problem for China as well. We have urged China to discuss its plans more openly in order to reduce the risk of estimates and miscalculation by its neighbors.

In sum, then, I see two potential problems from this [Chinese] build-up. The one is that it might continue -- might accelerate and continue -- beyond where we're now projecting it, and then I would get concerned. The other is, even at the level and pace it is today, there is a great concern by many of their neighbors, partly because of the lack of openness of the Chinese in describing the program, that we have urged for much greater transparency on the part of Chinese in describing their budget, their programs, the deployment. All of that, I think, would go a long way toward easing some of this concern.

Thank you very much.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at