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Tolerating China's games

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Tolerating China's games

Cal and Bob agree that American political and business leaders have turned a blind eye to a Beijing regime that poses great risks to American interests.

Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot. They co-wrote the book Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America

Today: How should the U.S. engage China?

Cal: China's big day is Friday, so we better all grab our popcorn and get comfy on our sofas for one massive propaganda parade masquerading as the Beijing Olympics.

Bob: Feels to me like the making of an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. We all know what China is made of, yet for one moment the world is supposed to ignore its many warts.

(Illustration by Veronica Salazar, USA TODAY)

Cal: Even so, President Bush made the right decision to go to the Games while setting aside politically motivated calls to boycott them over Beijing's dismal human rights record. Even if a boycott could somehow persuade the Chinese to release political prisoners, it would do nothing to change the overall policies and practices of the communist government. Better to engage China than to engage in boycotts. And better to compete and win on China's territory than to retreat to our own. That strategy worked well at the 1936 Berlin Games, after all.

Bob: Amazingly, we have found immediate common ground. I'm with you on President Bush. (First time I've typed those words!) His presence will be a reminder that the United States is about to have another orderly transfer of power to a new president chosen by the people. In China, of course, the Communist Party chooses the country's leaders. The Games have a funny way of speaking truth to the world. Seventy years ago, Olympian Jesse Owens, an African American, competed in Munich and defeated Germany's "master race" in event after event. On a world stage, Owens exposed the weak underbelly of Hitler's feeble racist ideology.

Cal: Like the Nazis, the communist Chinese lie to preserve their power and privilege. After promising not to censor the Internet for visiting journalists, authorities reversed themselves, and the International Olympic Committee shamelessly has gone along. The IOC "negotiated" with the government and agreed to "some" of the limitations on grounds they are not "Games-related." These would be sites that discuss Tibet, Taiwanese independence, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Amnesty International and Radio Free Asia, for starters.

Bob: We've seen politics interfere with the Games time and again, and it's the athletes who pay the price. My son was in Scotland competing as a member of the U.S. junior golf team in the annual Euro Junior Golf Cup. These kids worked hard to get there, just like every Olympic athlete. After seeing his work firsthand, I can only imagine the disappointment Olympians suffer when politics ends their run. Several Iraqi athletes won't compete because of IOC posturing. That's a shame.

Cal: There's a world of difference between free Scotland and China, as you know. A more important long-term question is not about whether the U.S. should have boycotted the Games. Rather, it is whether to engage or not engage dictatorships. This applies not just to China, but also North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and other nations the U.S. refuses to talk to, except through back channels. One strategy does not fit all. I thought Hillary Clinton was right during the primary campaign when she pointed out that talking to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would diminish the prestige of the U.S. presidency and give credibility to a fanatical dictator. We have to be careful and clever about the way weengage such nations.

Bob: The United States has chosen to engage some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, including China. Engagement does not mean agreement, but it does provide an avenue to avoid potential conflict. This head-in-the-sand approach some conservatives take when it comes to Iran is not only silly, but dangerous. I view China as a far greater threat to U.S. national security than Iran will ever be, and yet we engage China. Why not Iran?

Cal: We've tried and have repeatedly been rebuffed by Iran. It takes two to tango, after all! As for China, journalists Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro lay out the challenges we face in the book The Coming Conflict with China. The authors offer a sobering assessment of the goals of a country whose expansion is fueled in large part by the profits from Western businesses. They say Chinese human rights violations are not the most important cause of tensions between China and the U.S., but they are illustrative of our complicated relationship.

Bob: How so?

Cal: First, the authors point out that today's human rights violations in China show how we've deluded ourselves into thinking China was becoming "more and more like us."

Bob: Let me stop you right there. Many Americans, myself included, never believed China was becoming "more like us." That line has been peddled by U.S. business interests who see big profits in China. Most couldn't care less about human rights.

Cal: I agree. Profit sometimes does trump patriotism. But the book also says the human rights issue "illustrates the extent to which China, despite many important changes, remains unchanged in its essential political nature." Finally, the authors note that China flouts American entreaties, reflecting "its confidence in itself as the embodiment of an alternative to Western ways."

Bob: What "many" changes? China today may not be crushing protesters with tanks in Tiananmen Square, but dissidents are still jailed without trial, or given sham trials, and many can't practice their faith. Those brave souls who speak out are sometimes never heard from again. China's form of capitalism is flourishing, but that's merely given Beijing the economic muscle to play the bully role.

Cal: Another book looks at the militaristic China. In Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States, former deputy undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin and defense analyst Ed Timperlake argue that China is a greater threat to the United States and U.S. interests than radical Islam. China is largely ignored, they argue, because much of what it is doing — from spying on America to an aggressive buildup of its computer hacking capabilities — is under the American public's radar.

Bob: It is not that China is below the radar. The abuses are well known, but our political leaders — Democrats and Republicans — have continued to appease China despite its track record. To make matters worse, China is now holding massive amounts of U.S. dollars because of our trade deficit with them.

Cal: Four years ago, former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers warned about an emerging global "balance of financial terror." He was concerned that the U.S. was borrowing too much from foreign governments, many of which oppose U.S. policies and interests. Then, the value of China's portfolio of U.S. securities was $300 billion. Today, the U.S. has added an additional $1.2 trillion in budget deficits and about $3 trillion in trade deficits. This gives China a huge financial weapon to use against us. We are fooling ourselves by spending like there is no tomorrow.

Bob: You conservatives and my fellow liberals can — and must — find common ground on China. We treat China with kid gloves, allowing it to flout trade agreements and deny human rights to its citizens while glossing over serious national security threats — many financial. We are still strong enough to counter the Chinese threat without saber rattling. The question is: Do our political leaders have the guts — and our business community the willingness — to resist profits if those gains compromise our national security?

Cal: That is the gold-medal question.

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