Relations with China a Top U.S. Concern, State's Zoellick Says

By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Relations with China are a top concern for the United States and will be for the foreseeable future, says Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

"Aside from dealing with Islamic political radicalism and terrorism, how we deal with China's growing influence is one of the central questions of 21st Century U.S. diplomacy," he told the House International Relations Committee May 10.

According to Zoellick, U.S.-China relations are operating on two levels:  global and domestic. (See related article.)

As the world's major powers, China and the United States both are affected by transnational threats such as disease, terrorism and environmental degradation, he said.

On the domestic level, there is "strong U.S. concern" regarding China's performance on human rights, individual freedom and political reform.  There are concerns on both sides, he said, regarding economics and trade and access to markets. (See related article.)

Zoellick said China is increasing its influence within the international system, and he acknowledged that "China's growing global footprint" is a cause for tensions.

That is offset, he said, by the fact that China's focus is now on pursuing its own economic, political and military strength vis-à-vis other states within the international system rather than promoting communist revolution and ideological struggle from outside it. (See related article.)

He added, however, that China's great economic strides are threatened by corruption that undermines the legitimacy of its leadership.

"Right now China's political legitimacy is not based on democracy, and it's not based on an ideology of communism. It's based on economic performance and nationalism," Zoellick told the panel. "And that has some fragility," he said, since much of the population is still poor and millions more jobs are needed.  "According to Chinese government figures alone," Zoellick said, "they've had 87,000 incidents of unrest last year."

China's leadership recognizes that it will need to develop "a social safety net to forestall unrest," Zoellick said.  "And this could have some important economic implications."  If China actually develops programs to provide for pensions and health care, there will be fewer reasons for people to save, he said, and possibly more reasons for greater consumption, which, in turn, could help with imbalances in trade.

Zoellick discussed the need for China to become a "responsible stakeholder," explaining that "a more influential China has greater capacity than most to help maintain the peaceful, prosperous, and open international system from which it has benefited."

He acknowledged that the word "stakeholder" has no easy translation into Chinese, and as a result, there has been great debate in China about the concept.

"There's not a part of the world market that China doesn't affect," Zoellick said.  China fully is integrated into the international system, part of the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Security Council and many other structures including those dealing with nonproliferation.

"But it prompts the question, integration to what end?  What's the purpose of this integration?  How will China use this new influence? It's not just a question of membership in the international system," Zoellick said, "but how has it exercised responsibility and a shared stake in this international system."

"And what I've emphasized to the Chinese," Zoellick said, "is the Chinese have talked about peaceful rise, peaceful development.

"Well, we encourage this, but they need to recognize that no countries are going to bet their future on it, and that's where Chinese policy, Chinese transparency, Chinese action on human rights, will be critically important."

For more on U.S. policy, see The United States and China and Human Rights.

An outline of the major points in Zoellick’s presentation before the House International Relations Committee is available on the committee Web site.