19 March 1993 - 21 March 1993

Western Relations with The People's Republic of China

Chair: The Lord Wilson of Tillyorn GCMG

Our conference was mounted in cooperation with the Atlantic Council of the United States; and the circulation of an impressive draft report, prepared under the Council’s auspices, on US relations with the People’s Republic of China gave us a flying start.

Two dramatic events had re-shaped the PRC’s external relations since the mid-1980s: the Tiananmen massacre had shocked world opinion and repelled free-world countries, and the end of the Cold War had removed the special purchase which a bipolar framework had given to Chinese leverage. The initial chill of Tiananmen had penetrated policy among all Western governments; but the gradual ensuing thaw had so far least reached the US, where deep popular outrage articulated through the Congress perhaps reflected the historic US semi-missionary concern for the conversion of China. The new congruence of executive and legislature might make for more coherent US policy, but by no means necessarily less frosty policy.

Within China itself the scene was, as almost always, complex, shifting and opaque. Massive economic change - most vividly but not only in regions like Guang Dong - had yielded sweeping growth on the back of surging individual enterprise and de facto privatisation. There were grounds for doubting whether the present pace could last - inflation risks were mounting, with the possibility accordingly of renewed central clamp-down; deficiencies in energy supply and transport infrastructure would bite with increasing sharpness; there were problems in agriculture, in unemployment levels and in the lack of dependable legal frameworks for commercial activity. But, saving the spectre of political chaos, the prospect overall was of continued expansion, with trade and investment opportunities keenly attractive to the US as to others.

Economic change of this kind and on this scale made social and eventually therefore political change inescapable, albeit perhaps in Chinese rather than Western timeframes; and the process was moreover welling up massively from below, not imposed by central design. But its central management and control placed a difficult agenda, amid conflicting pressures, in front of an aged leadership whose ideology had foundered and who brought to bear reactive attitudes largely marked by suspicion, face-conscious nationalism and deep fear that lost control might lead to China’s break-up. Their legitimacy with the people was questionable, the quality of likely successors unimpressive (despite some shift towards more technocratic and provisionally-representative membership) and the structures for ordered transition uncertain.

The stance of the armed forces had been crucial at Tiananmen and could be so again; but the West was not well informed about their outlook and cohesion. They had wide financial and operating independence, and it was by no means certain that, under national stress, they would again stand by and rescue the central political élite.

We came to no ready prediction of the likely course of China’s political development. Simple reversion to closed and rigid Marxist authoritarianism seemed out of the question, but a smooth, peaceful and imaginative advance towards mature political pluralism was almost equally so, given leadership inadequacy and apprehension. Views differed on whether there was a real risk of major explosion. There were the elements of combustion, especially if crudely mishandled from the centre; as against that, China had almost always managed to live with a degree of local disorder, and there was a profound horror of chaos, perhaps all the stronger now that growing prosperity had given people more to lose.

In this situation the West’s bottom-line concern, most of us agreed, must be for a coherent and stable China. Break-up or even serious weakness could have widely damaging regional and global consequences - and the worst scenario for human rights would be the collapse of order. The West should not imagine that its own ability to influence outcomes was other than marginal, and history enjoined humility about the ability of outside interventions, of any kind, to yield intended effects. All this pointed to a flexibility in policy choice, and a modest basic aim of seeking to help reduce the likelihood of bad outcomes.

There was some diversity of view on human rights. We noted that though the US was not alone in its proven concern, US opinion felt a stronger urge than others (and especially than neighbours within the region) to keep China under pressure in this field. We were disinclined to concede abatement of the universality of basic rights; but we noted that priorities among them were not seen identically by the US and by Asian states, and that the latter were the more disposed to give China credit for improvements already achieved (albeit from a low start point).

We mostly took a relatively relaxed view of the current regional-security aspects of policy towards China, on the key proviso that underlying US engagement was not to be seriously eroded. We saw recent Chinese acquisitions of advanced military equipment as (in its context) unthreatening in scale, and explicable in terms of general aspiration towards status and People’s Liberation Army reaction to the lessons of the Gulf War, rather than aggressive external ambition. We saw advantage if China could be engaged in some coherent multilateral security structure, but we recognised that China’s desires were probably for global rather than regional frameworks and status.

We managed to avoid disproportionate discussion-time on Taiwan and Hong Kong; but we noted the inescapable concrete significance of these in policy towards China, most obviously but by no means only for the US and the UK respectively. There was much evidence of growing pragmatic contact between the mainland and Taiwan, but it remained clear that any Taiwanese move towards independence, or sovereign accession to GATT in advance of China’s, would be seen in Beijing as acutely provocative. Views nevertheless differed on how far Chinese sensitivities should be allowed to constrain Taiwan’s preferences or Western policy towards it; at the least, we agreed, Western countries should think and plan well ahead for alternative contingencies.

Matters at issue with China in the Hong Kong context, we recalled, were not confined to the Governor’s proposed legislation on modest pre-1997 democratic advance in response to popular concerns and post-Tiananmen fears, though this was salient at present. We accepted that formal multilateralization of dealings with China would not be welcome to either China or the UK; but firm and regular reminders to China of the interest of others beside the UK - reflecting, for example, the fact that the US expatriate business community in Hong Kong was now larger than the British - could make a valuable contribution. Some were sceptical of any idea of tying Chinese retention of Most-Favoured-Nation status, in US legislation, to good behaviour over Hong Kong; it would be as apparent to China as to others that Hong Kong itself would suffer if MFN status were withheld. In all Hong Kong-related business the reality should be remembered that what mattered most was what happened in the years beyond 1997; and that if China then mishandled Hong Kong the repercussions would stretch widely.

Our debate focused, at root, upon two central questions of approach: how should Western countries deal with China, and how - if at all - should they concert such dealings among themselves? On the first, few of us saw merit in high-profile confrontation or extensive cross-linkage of issues. Japan and other countries of the region were particularly concerned to avoid developments that might force upon them choices as between China and the US. Dealings need not be soft, and Western countries should be ready to stick toughly to bottom lines issue by issue. But for the most part business would be best advanced through dialogue - preferably multilateral - wherever possible encouraging China to feel involved rather than targeted, whether on the environment, the arms trade, drugs, nuclear proliferation, the operation of the UN (especially the Security Council), the improvement of legal structures for economic life or China’s wary movement towards GATT membership. This last remained much in everyone’s long-term interest, but China still had a great deal to do on matters like transparency and law and had evinced as yet an uncertain enthusiasm for truly open multilateral trade. It was neither feasible nor desirable to select a single over-arching framework for all this business - GATT was of limited ambit, and Chinese involvement in the Group of Seven would dilute or even destroy that useful mechanism without offsetting advantage. A pattern of purpose-built dialogues and multiplied contacts at many levels (including perhaps, for example, links with OECD on the model used for the smaller fast-developing Asian countries) seemed best to fit reality, with as much as possible of carrot rather than stick - though a majority of us, even after Manchester-interested votes were disallowed, seemed to doubt the wisdom of any political award of Olympics 2000 to China.

We saw, similarly, no one neat way to coordinate Western dealings (and recognised that risks of perceived ganging-up would anyway have had to be weighed). But we all agreed that in recent years there had been little if any systematic consultation or coordination; that this was a notably undesirable situation, with risks of needless inefficiency, confused signals to China and avoidable scope for Chinese manipulation; and that a serious effort was needed - perhaps through informal but purposeful meetings from time to time between key players from the US, Japan and the EC or its main members - towards better coherence, or at the least better-informed and more sensitive collective awareness, in the conduct of China-related business.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Lord Wilson of Tillyorn GCMG
Life Peer (1992); Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Hong Kong (1987-92)


Mr Jeremy Brown
Director, Matheson & Co Ltd, London

Dr Anne Coles
Social Development Adviser (with particular responsibility for China), Overseas Development Administration

Sir John Coles KCMG
Deputy Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr Peter Ferdinand
Head, Asia-Pacific Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London

Dr Rosemary Foot
John Swire Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of East Asia, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford

Mr Christopher Hum
Assistant Under-Secretary of State for N. Asia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Rt Hon Sir Richard Luce DL
Vice Chancellor, University of Buckingham

Dr Jonathan Mirsky
China specialist, The Observer; journalist and broadcaster

Dr Edwina Moreton
Diplomatic Editor, The Economist

Mr Alexander Nicoll
Asia Editor, The Financial Times

Dr David Shambaugh
Editor, The China Quarterly, and Senior Lecturer in Chinese Politics, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London

Mr Nicolas Wolfers
Group Adviser, Eagle Star Holdings PLC

Ms Elizabeth Wright
Deputy Head, Far Eastern Service, BBC World Service

Dr Michael Yahuda
Reader, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science

Mr C Howard Cummer
Vice President, Canpotex

Mr David Holdsworth
Vice President, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ottawa

Senator the Hon James F Kelleher PC QC
Vice-President, Canada-China Trade Council

Mr W G Robinson QC
Executive Director, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto

Mr Robert Madelin
Member of Sir Leon Brittan’s Cabinet (responsible for trade policy and GATT negotiations; EC/ Asian-Pacific relations; Mediterranean; Latin America; AFTA, EEA and Enlargement)

M François Godement
Research Fellow, Institut Français des Relations Internationales, and Head, International Business Department, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations, Paris

Professor Dr Thomas Heberer
Professor of East Asian Politics, University of Trier

Herr Jürgen Staks
Head, South East Asia, Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Foreign Office, Bonn

Christoph Graf von Waldersee
Head, Policy Planning, DEG, (German Investment and Finance Company), Cologne

Cons Mario Filippo Pini
Head, Asian Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome

Mr Katsunari Suzuki
Director-General, Information Analysis, Research and Planning Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo

Mr Susumu Yabuki
Professor, Yokohama City University, Tokyo

Mr Yang Chun Park
Minister, Embassy of the Republic of Korea, London

Mr Bryce Harland
New Zealand High Commissioner, London (1985-91)

Dr Andrei Kousmenko
China Division, Foreign Ministry, Moscow

Dr Mary Brown Bullock
Director, Asia Program, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC

Mr Richard Bush
Staff Consultant with special responsibility for Asia, House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee

The Hon Barber B Conable
Chairman, NCUSCR; Co-chair China Policy Committee, The Atlantic Council of the US (

General Russell E Dougherty
Corporate Attorney, McGuire Woods, Battle and Boothe, Washington area

Mr John E Gray
Director of several companies; Vice-Chairman, ACUS; Chairman: International Energy Associates (IEA) Ltd, Washington DC

Dr Harry Harding
Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

Dr David M Lampton
President, NCUSCR

Mr David N Laux
President, US A-Republic of China Economic Council

Mr Peter Tomsen
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary-Designate, East Asia and Pacific Bureau, Department of State

Professor Allen S Whiting
Professor of Political Science and Director, Center for East Asian Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson

Dr Al D Wilhelm
Vice President, Atlantic Council of US